Pakistani police on Friday detained the head of a banned Sunni Muslim extremist group that claimed responsibility for deadly sectarian bomb attacks in Quetta.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) leader Malik Ishaq was held after two recent bombings in the city targeting the Shiite Hazara minority killed more than 180 people, sparking nationwide protests.
Shiites, who make up about 20 percent of the mostly Sunni Muslim population of 180 million, are facing record numbers of attacks, raising serious questions about security as nuclear-armed Pakistan prepares to hold elections by mid-May.
Ishaq was detained at his home in Rahim Yar Khan, where he was living openly, before being taken to a local jail, police said.
He was being held under the “Maintenance of Public Order law on the orders of the Punjab provincial government,” Rahim Yar Khan senior police official Tanveer Ahmad said.
A court released Ishaq on bail in July 2011, even though he has been implicated in dozens of murders. He was detained briefly last year for inciting sectarian hatred.
He has been accused of masterminding the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, which wounded seven players and an assistant coach and killed eight Pakistanis.
His detention came a day after the Pakistani army denied any links to LJ, which is the most extreme Sunni Muslim terror group and is linked to both al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.
Chief military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa, was cited in newspaper Dawn as saying “there is no way the army can afford” any ties to militants.
The latest bomb attack in Quetta was on Feb. 17, when 89 people were killed. On Jan. 10, 92 people were killed in an attack at a Hazara snooker hall. Protesters poured onto the streets following the latest attack and shut down parts of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, demanding better protection for Shiites and lashing out at the government for failing to catch the perpetrators.
Shiites protested by refusing to bury their dead following both attacks. They called off nationwide protests over the latest attack on Tuesday and agreed to bury their dead after the government promised to arrest those responsible.
The minority called off a similar protest last month, when Islamabad sacked the provincial government and imposed governor’s rule after the snooker hall bombing.
Officials said earlier this week that security forces had killed four men and detained more than 170 alleged suspects, including the purported mastermind of the latest bombing.
Pakistani security forces frequently detain people en masse after major bombings, but few if any are ever charged.
Human Rights Watch said more than 400 Shiites were killed last year, the deadliest on record for Shiites.
LJ emerged as a spin-off from mujahidin groups that were funded by the CIA and backed by the Pakistani intelligence services during the 1980s war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.