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Pakistan to send paramilitaries to fight Punjab militants

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-02-2017 Munir Ahmed

Islamabad/Peshawar/Karachi: Pakistan said on Wednesday it will send paramilitary forces to crack down on Islamic militants in the Punjab province, a move that the ruling party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had long rejected because of opposition among its Islamist supporters.

The decision to deploy the paramilitary forces, which have had some success against extremists in other hot spots, came after a wave of attacks killed more than 125 people last week, including an Islamic State suicide bombing at a famed shrine that killed 90.

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Sharif’s younger brother is the chief minister of Punjab, the country’s most populous province. The Sharifs rely on support from Islamist parties that espouse extremist views but have not been linked to the latest attacks. Pakistan has long seen such groups as allies against its arch-rival India in the conflict over the Kashmir region.

Pakistan has maintained close ties to the Afghan Taliban as well as Islamic militant groups fighting in Kashmir while battling the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups that are bent on overthrowing the government.

The interior ministry said the paramilitary forces would be mobilized in Punjab for 60 days to assist local security forces in cracking down on extremist groups as well as their hard-line seminaries and recruiting networks. Major general Asif Ghafoor, the army spokesman, later announced the start of a new operation by the military and other security forces aimed at “eliminating the threat of terrorism,” without providing further details.

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The secular opposition has long called for such measures, while Islamist and right-wing parties are opposed, fearing their own supporters could get swept up in such a crackdown.

But outrage over the latest wave of attacks appears to have prompted the government to take action. On Wednesday, lawyers in northwestern Pakistan boycotted court hearings to protest a suicide attack the day before that killed seven people outside a courthouse. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway Taliban faction, claimed the attack.

The military meanwhile said airstrikes in a tribal region along the Afghan border killed several militants on Wednesday. Rao Anwar, a police official in the southern city of Karachi, said eight Taliban-linked militants were killed in a raid.

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Also on Wednesday, US Ambassador David Hale met with Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, who has been named as Pakistan’s new envoy to Washington. Hale condemned the latest attacks in a statement, saying “the US will continue to work in partnership with Pakistan to dismantle terrorist networks.” AP

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