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Pakistan arrests suspected militants in assassination plot

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani police have arrested seven men suspected of plotting to kill top government officials, highlighting the growing threat Pakistan faces from groups it has historically given a relatively free rein to operate.

Abid Qadri, chief of the Bahawalpur police, told reporters late Thursday that the men had been captured after a shootout Wednesday night. They apparently had planned to use an explosive-laden vehicle to kill Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani and other senior officials, including the foreign minister on a visit to Mr. Gillani’s hometown of Multan, but were thwarted as their plot was “almost complete.”

According to police, the arrested men were members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group with growing ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“These arrests show that Pakistan is very serious in confronting those terrorist groups who until some years ago weren’t seen as a threat, but are now targeting the state and its institutions,” says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald magazine and an expert on militant groups.

Caught with gold, silver to fund plot

Police said the same group of men had been involved in attacking the offices of the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in the city of Multan last December, in which seven people were killed. The ISI is known to have trained Islamist jihadis to use as proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

According to the Nation, a Pakistani English daily, the suspects were receiving orders and instructions from Qari Imran, a leader of a Taliban offshoot group from in North Waziristan. They were caught with 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of gold and 2.5kg of silver, which they apparently planned to sell to fund their plot.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was formed in 1996 with the goal of killing Pakistan’s minority Shiites, but has since aligned itself more closely with global Islamist goals.

Shift in Pakistan’s policy of sheltering militants?

According to Alam, plots such as this highlight the inherent flaw in the Pakistani military establishment’s policy of sheltering those militants it feels could be useful further down the line, as highlighted in the recent WikiLeaks reports.

Civilian law enforcement in Punjab has been wary of cracking down hard on Punjabi militant groups in the past for fear of creating a backlash, though there now appears to be a “newfound restlessness in tracking down enemies of the state,” adds Alam.

“This is a clarion call the establishment should be listening to. These groups go across the boundaries and good becomes bad and bad becomes ugly,” he says.

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