LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani police killed the leader of the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, his two sons and 11 others on Wednesday in a shootout after gunmen attacked a police convoy as he was being moved, police said.
Ishaq’s death, after decades during which he appeared to have been untouchable, could mark an important shift in the way the Pakistani government deals with militants, analysts said.
The extremist Sunni Muslim group founded by Ishaq has claimed responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, mostly minority Shi‘ite Muslims.
The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) once enjoyed open support from Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, which used such groups as proxies in India and Afghanistan and to counter Shi‘ite militant groups.
Ishaq had faced dozens of murder trials but had always been acquitted after witnesses refused to testify.
He was arrested again on Saturday, under a public order act, along with his two sons. On Tuesday, police took them to an area near the town of Muzaffargarh in the eastern province of Punjab.
Ishaq had given police the location of other militants and an arms cache there, Muzaffargarh police spokesman Adnan Shehzad told Reuters.
But a group of men on motorcycles ambushed the police convoy as it arrived in the early hours of Wednesday, Shehzad said.
“Twelve to 15 terrorists attacked the police party ... freed the accused and fled away on motorcycles,” a police spokeswoman, Nabila Ghazanfar, quoted a policeman in the area as saying in a message.
Police further along the road attacked the gunmen as they fled, killing Ishaq, his two sons, and 11 others, Ghazanfar cited the policeman as saying. Six police were wounded, the police spokesman said.
Another top LeJ leader, Ghulam Rasool, was also killed, police said.
Police said Ishaq and his sons were being investigated over the murder of dozens of people.
“The gang was also in league with the (Taliban) and al Qaeda groups operating in the area,” the police message said.
The circumstances of Ishaq’s killing raise many questions, given a long police record of staging shoot-outs to eliminate suspects.
Police often stage such clashes as judges have been intimidated into acquitting high-profile militants, said one senior police investigator not involved in this case.
The investigator said Ishaq’s killing bore the hallmarks of police action under a National Action Plan (NAP) against militancy, launched last December after Pakistani Taliban militants killed 134 students at an army-run school in the city of Peshawar.
“This is NAP in action,” said the investigator, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media. “State policy on this is indiscriminate and broad-based: terrorists will not be tolerated, no matter who they are.”
Another senior police official said Punjab province was on alert in anticipation of retaliatory attacks.
Punjab is Pakistan’s biggest and richest province and the political heartland of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It has traditionally been a more peaceful area of Pakistan; some political parties accuse the government there of tacitly tolerating militant groups in exchange for a ceasefire.
Ishaq’s death marks a dramatic change, said Omar Hamid, the head of Asia analysis at IHS Country Risk, and a former head of the counter-terrorism police in the southern city of Karachi.
“It seems the Punjab government has decided to take a much more muscular policy towards militants,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik, Katharine Houreld and Amjad Ali in Islamabad; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel