By Jon Boone in Islamabad
Leaders of Pakistan’s most infamous sectarian terrorist group, including its founder Malik Ishaq, were killed in a gun battle with police on Wednesday that many suspect may have been deliberately staged.
Ishaq and 13 other militants from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) – including two of his sons and a top official – died after gunmen attempted to free them from custody in a pre-dawn operation, police claimed.
The al-Qaida-linked group, which Ishaq co-founded in 1996, is notorious for its attacks against Shias, as well other minority groups including Christians and Ahmedis.
Rai Muhammad Tahir, the head of Punjab’s counter-terrorism department, said Ishaq had offered to take police to an arms dump after he was arrested on Saturday.
“A special team was organised to visit the area with Malik Ishaq, his two sons and colleague Ghulam Rasool to recover explosives from a house situated in Shah Wali area of Muzaffargarh,” Tahir said.
“The moment the special team arrived at the place, some 20 militants attacked and tried to free Malik Ishaq and others. In a direct exchange of heavy fire, Malik Ishaq, his two sons and colleague Ghulam Rasool were killed along with 11 others,” he said.
The haul of weapons recovered from the house included 40kg of explosives, suicide bomb vests and guns, Tahir said.
The account raised immediate suspicions among some observers that the battle may have been an “encounter” – the name Pakistanis give to contrived killings of troublesome terror suspects whom the courts have been unable to convict.
Tahir was unable to explain why police had required so many senior LeJ leaders to attend to the identification of the weapons cache. Asad Munir, a retired officer of the inter-services intelligence directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s top spy agency, said “an encounter cannot be ruled out”.
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