Police in Pakistan's populous province of Punjab have detained over 50 people in a crackdown on the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan that was launched in the wake of terror attacks on the minority Shia community.
The crackdown has focused on the southern part of Punjab, where several militant groups like the LeJ and Jaish-e-Mohammed have strongholds and support bases.
On Friday, police arrested LeJ chief Malik Ishaq at his home in Rahim Yar Khan District.
According to a Punjab Police official, over 50 activists of the LeJ and SSP had been arrested from different parts of the province, including Jhang, Toba Tek Singh, Faisalabad and Lahore.
"They have been detained for a month under the Maintenance of Public Order law. The crackdown will continue," said the official, who did not want to be named.
Among those detained in Lahore were Abdur Rau Moawaia, Muhammad Shafique and Asif Moawia.
The Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, considered a front for the LeJ and SSP, condemned the arrests and said most of the detained men were its members.
ASWJ leader Maulana Muhammad Awais claimed members of his group were being detained to ‘please’ Shias.
The LeJ claimed responsibility for two devastating bomb attacks in the southwestern city of Quetta that killed nearly 200 people, a majority of them Shia Hazaras.
The attacks triggered countrywide protests and led to the imposition of Governor’s Rule in Balochistan.
Authorities launched the crackdown even as Interior Minister Rehman Malik warned the PML-N government in Punjab that he would use federal law enforcement agencies against the LeJ if provincial authorities failed to act.
Malik has said the LeJ has its main base in Punjab and some 3,000 of its activists are present in the province.
Malik said he would order the Federal Investigation Agency, Pakistan Rangers and other paramilitary forces to take action against the LeJ if the Punjab government fails to crack down on the group.
Shuakat Basra, a senior leader of the Pakistan People's Party that is in power at the Centre, said, "It appears the PML-N government in Punjab has no other option but to go after the LeJ and SSP men".
Basra, who belongs to southern Punjab, told PTI that PML-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif should come out of their ‘denial mode’ and give up their stance -- that there are no terrorists in Punjab.
"The Punjab government should cooperate with the federal government and launch a joint operation against terrorists in the province, especially in the south," he said.
This is not the first time the federal government has called for action against militants holed up in southern Punjab, a hub of seminaries of the Deobandi school of thought.
In the past, LeJ and SSP militants were accused of joining hands with the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan to carry out attacks on Shias and law enforcement personnel.
After the killing of the Shia Hazaras in Quetta, pressure has mounted on the PML-N to go after the LeJ and SSP.
Some leaders of Shia groups and the PPP, however, believe the action taken so far by the PML-N against the LeJ or SSP is only aimed at hoodwinking the public.
The PML-N has for long been accused of maintaining links with the ASWJ for electoral gains.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, a close aide of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, openly campaigned with SSP and ASWJ leaders during by-polls in their stronghold of Jhang district, 250 km from Lahore.
LeJ chief Malik Ishaq, who was freed on bail after spending 14 years in jail, has been accused of killing dozens of Shias. After his release from jail about two years ago, there has been a sharp increase in attacks on Shias across the country, especially in Balochistan.