By Asif Shahzad and Drazen Jorgic
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan said on Tuesday it had begun a crackdown on Islamist militant groups, detaining 44 members of banned organizations including close relatives of the leader of a group blamed for a deadly bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir last month.
The interior ministry said it was a move to “speed up action against all proscribed organizations”. Officials said it was part of a long-planned drive against militant groups, not a response to Indian anger over what New Delhi calls Islamabad’s failure to rein in militant groups operating on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan is facing pressure from global powers to act against groups carrying out attacks in India, including Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police.
The incident led to the most serious conflict in years between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, with cross-border air strikes and a brief dogfight over the skies of Kashmir. Tension cooled when Pakistan returned a downed Indian pilot on Friday.
In a further sign that tensions were easing, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said a delegation would visit New Delhi next week to discuss an accord on Sikh pilgrims visiting holy sites in Pakistan.
The interior ministry said close relatives of JeM leader Masood Azhar had been detained in “protective custody” as part of the crackdown. It named them as Mufti Abdul Raoof and Hamad Azhar, who one ministry official said was the leader’s son.
Some of the people detained were named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan after last month’s bombing, Interior Minister Shehryar Afridi said.
“We are investigating them and if we get more evidence, more proof against them, they will be proceeded against according to law and if we don’t get any proof their detention will end,” Afridi said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told CNN last week that JeM chief Azhar was in Pakistan and was “really unwell”.
The United States, Britain and France proposed last month that the U.N. Security Council blacklist Azhar. A Security Council vote is due to be held in mid-March. However, Pakistan’s staunch ally China, a Security Council member, has blocked previous attempts by world powers to sanction the JeM chief.
Over the weekend, the United States and Britain urged Pakistan to deal with militant groups.
Many Pakistani groups and individuals are under U.N. sanctions, including the JeM, and Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed.
There was no immediate official reaction in India to the arrests in Pakistan.
However, an Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed scepticism.
“We have all seen this done for the last several decades now. How many times has Hafiz Saeed been arrested and let out?” the official said. “And have they taken action against Jaish camps?”
Saeed, who holds public gatherings in Pakistan, has been at the heart of criticism that Pakistan does not enforce its anti-militancy laws.
Pakistan has long used some Islamist groups to pursue its aims in the region, but it has denied New Delhi’s accusations it actively supports militants fighting Indian forces in India’s part of Muslim-majority Kashmir.
From time to time – usually as a result of outside pressure – Pakistan has cracked down on anti-India militants but most factions manage to survive and resume activities.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry announced a new order on Monday to update existing laws that deal with those on U.N. sanctions lists. The government said it had developed a “full-fledged strategy” to deal with militants and it was looking to close “loopholes” that allowed banned groups to operate.
Two senior security officials told Reuters the government has drawn up plans to take over all madrasas – Islamic schools – linked to groups banned by the United Nations and to seize their assets and infrastructure.
At a later stage the government may consider recruiting some of the militants into paramilitary forces or seek other ways to find them jobs and incorporate them into normal society, the officials said.
Closing madrasas is a thorny issue in Pakistan, a deeply conservative Muslim nation where religious schools are often blamed for radicalisation of youngsters but are the only education available to millions of poor children.
A Pakistani minister told Reuters that several madrasas had been closed in recent days, including one run by Saeed-linked Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and another seminary operated by JeM in Bahawalpur, where JeM has its headquarters.
Several other madrasas will be closed but there will not be widespread closures, said the minister, who asked not to be identified, adding that only a few such schools have links with terrorism.
Saeed-linked Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) is estimated to run about 300 madrasas.
Pakistani TV anchor and columnist Nazim Zehra, who attended a background briefing by Prime Minister Imran Khan and finance minister Asad Umar on Monday, said the government was determined that militants should put down their weapons and be demobilised.
(Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi; Editing by Frances Kerry and Gareth Jones)