On a day that the clouds of uncertainty surrounding the proposed talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan finally lifted, Pakistan too officially confirmed that a key terrorist leader was being held as part of its investigation into the militant strike at an Indian air force base on January 2.
The law minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Rana Sanaullah confirmed that Masood Azhar, head of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad has been taken into “protective custody” along with his accomplices, but clarified he is “not arrested,” PTI reported from Lahore.
“Masood Azhar has been taken into protective custody by the Punjab police counter-terrorism department,” Sanaullah told Dawn News, the TV channel of the Dawn newspaper group on Thursday night.
Earlier in the day, the Pakistani government chose not to confirm or deny the reports that Azhar has been taken into “protective custody” with the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying he was “not aware” of any arrest.
On his part, Sanaullah was blunt: “We have taken Maulana Azhar and his fellows under protective custody in connection with the Pathankot incident. However, we will arrest him if his involvement in the Pathankot attack is proved,” Sanaullah said.
He added that operation against banned outfits including JeM would continue under the National Action Programme.
India has identified Azhar as the mastermind of the Pathankot attack on January 2. It has also blamed his brother Rauf and five others for carrying out the attack in which seven Indian soldiers were killed along with all the six terrorists.
India has shared this information along with two Pakistani phone numbers that were made calls to by the terrorists.
According to reports, security agencies have arrested 31 activists of JeM from different parts of the province.
After a high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday, his office issued a statement which said that “several individuals” belonging to JeM have been apprehended in connection with the Pathankot terror attack and some of its offices traced and sealed.
While Indian officials privately welcomed this statement and went into a huddle Wednesday night to decide on the fate of the foreign secretary-level meeting that was originally slated for January 15, it was left to the Pakistan ministry of foreign affairs to break the news that the talks would not take place as planned.
Foreign Office spokesman Qazi Khalilullah told a news briefing that both sides were holding consultations to reschedule the talks.
Later on Thursday, the Indian ministry of external affairs spokesman Vikas Swarup said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar had spoken to his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Chaudhry and that both officials had “agreed to reschedule their talks in the very near future.”
In a short statement, the MEA said India “welcome(s) the statement issued by the Government of Pakistan yesterday on the investigations into the Pathankot terrorist attack. The statement conveys that considerable progress has been made in the investigations being carried out against terrorist elements linked to the Pathankot incident. We note the apprehension of Jaish-e-Mohammad members. The action taken against Jaish-e-Mohammad is an important and positive first step.”
Responding to Pakistan’s request for access for its investigators to the Pathankot site, the MEA said India would “look forward to the visit of the Pakistani Special Investigation Team, and our investigative agencies will extend all necessary cooperation to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice.”
Provocation by ‘Hindu Sena’
Meanwhile, a Hindu right-wing group today vandalised the office of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in New Delhi on Thursday, prompting Islamabad to take up the issue with the MEA.
Four members of Hindu Sena, a fringe group, went to the fifth floor office of PIA at Barakhamba Road around 3:15 PM and ransacked three rooms damaging computers, furniture and other items. Police arrested one member of the group.
Owning responsibility of the incident, Hindu Sena chief Vishnu Gupta said Pakistan was responsible for the attacks at Pathankot air base as well as at the Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif recently.
“Through this act, the members of our Delhi unit have expressed their anger and sent a message to Pakistan that they should respect our sentiments and keep in mind that we are not weak,” he said.
Gupta was arrested last October days after his complaint that “beef” was being served at Kerala House canteen here was later found to be false.
In a statement in Islamabad, the Pakistan Foreign Office said its High Commission in Delhi has taken up the matter with India’s External Affairs Ministry.
“The PIA office in New Delhi was ransacked by a group of extremists. They caused damage to the property and also harassed and threatened the PIA staff.
“The Pakistan High Commission immediately took up the matter with the Ministry of External Affairs, asking them to provide adequate security to the PIA offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, as well as to take action against the miscreants,” the statement said.
It said Indian government assured that all necessary steps will be taken for security of the PIA offices in India.
Police said the incident is being investigated and efforts are on to nab the other three accused.
“The arrested person has been identified as Lalit Singh, who is a member of Hindu Sena. Efforts are on to nab his associates,” DCP (New Delhi) Jatin Narwal told reporters.
Police said by the time its personnel reached the spot, three members of the group had fled from the PIA office.
Security was stepped up near the PIA office after the incident. A central security force team was also rushed there later.
The PIA office here was vandalised in August 2013 too allegedly by a right wing group in the wake of the death of an Indian soldier in a ceasefire violation by Pakistan forces along the LoC.
(With inputs from PTI)