By Farhan Bokhari
Pakistan’s security forces have arrested 13 Islamic militants including Masood Azhar, a notorious hardline leader, in an unprecedented step to help investigations into a terrorist attack on an Indian air force base this month.
The arrests mark a rare conciliatory gesture by Pakistan towards its larger neighbour. News of the arrest of Mr Azhar surprised western officials, who have long suspected him of being a protégé of Pakistan’s influential armed forces and the army-run Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, counter espionage agency.
A senior Pakistani government official confirmed that Mr Azhar had been taken into “protective custody” — suggesting he has yet to be charged with a crime.
“Once India gives us evidence of Masood Azhar’s involvement in the air base attack, we can then formally charge him. So far there is no hard evidence,” said the official.
Indian officials claim militants from Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group led by Mr Azhar, had carried out the attack in early January.
Western analysts said Mr Azhar’s arrest suggests a hardening of Pakistan’s attitude towards militants who were once tolerated by the state. For years, Indian authorities have accused Pakistan of refusing to take action against militants, who routinely travelled to Indian administered Kashmir to fight Indian security forces.
Mr Azhar gained worldwide prominence in 1999 when he was released from an Indian prison in a widely publicised hostage swap following the hijacking of an Indian commercial airliner which landed in Kandahar in Afghanistan while the country was under Taliban rule. His release was seen at the time as “a major coup for militancy in this region, a precedent which many people feared could be repeated in future,” said one western diplomat in Islamabad.
Retired Major General Mahmud Durrani, a former national security adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister’s office, said “these arrests show that Pakistan is serious about taking action against militants”.
He added: “Unlike the past, the government seems to be more serious in providing support to India’s investigation”.
In a related development on Wednesday, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting of top security officials to review security conditions across the country. A senior government official who works with Mr Sharif said Pakistan had renewed its offer from earlier this week to dispatch personnel to India in order to assist with investigations into the air force base attack.
“Pakistan and India have remained enemies for almost 70 years. We are now trying to work out possibilities for co-operation as normally as it should be between two neighbours,” said the official. “If it works, this could turn a new page in the history of our two countries.”