Pakistan rules out offensive against Punjab militants

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

image captionMilitancy seems to be gaining ground in Punjab

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has stressed there are no plans for military action against militants in the Punjab province.

His remarks came hours after he told a parliamentary committee that "Punjabi Taliban" were entrenched in southern parts of Punjab.

Mr Malik said they were planning to destabilise the country.

Few Pakistani officials have acknowledged the existence of militant bases in Punjab despite media reports.

Over the past few years Pakistan has been waging a bitter battle against militants in the north of the country.

Any suggestion that the war is now spreading to the rest of Pakistan would raise concerns about the country's stability - both at home and abroad.

'Effective action'

Mr Malik's comments come days after militants killed more than 90 people in attacks on two mosques of the minority Ahmadi Muslim community in Lahore.

image captionMost Pakistani militancy has been in the north-west

The attacks are being blamed on what are called the Punjabi Taliban, a loose alliance of militant groups linked to Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan's north-western tribal areas.

The Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, accused Mr Malik of "provincialism" for his use of the term "Punjabi Taliban".

This is the first time a top government minister has acknowledged that militants have bases in southern parts of Punjab province, which houses more than half of the country's population.

"No military operation is planned against banned [militant] outfits in Punjab... [but] effective action would jointly be taken [with the Punjab government] to eliminate them," Pakistan's official APP news agency quoted him as telling journalists on Wednesday.

Earlier, while briefing a parliamentary interior committee meeting, Mr Malik said groups of "Punjabi Taliban" had been involved in attacks in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and elsewhere in Punjab province.

He said these groups were entrenched in Punjab and were becoming increasingly dangerous.

Most parliamentarians from southern Punjab have been reluctant publicly to admit the existence of militants there, presumably due to reasons of personal security.

The ruling party of the Punjab province, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has also sought to dispel media reports that Taliban fighters hailing from Punjab province may have hideouts there.

A top minister of Punjab, Rana Sanaullah, recently attracted criticism for seeking the support of a militant organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, during a by-election in March.

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