By Salman Masood
JAN. 13, 2016
Indian commandos at the air force base in Pathankot last week that was attacked by militants this month. Credit Narinder Nanu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani officials said Wednesday that members of a banned militant group had been arrested in connection with an attack this month on the Pathankot air force base in India, in an important gesture to ease tensions with India just weeks after a surprise meeting between the countries’ prime ministers.
“Pakistan‘s territory will not be used against any other country,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was quoted as saying at a special meeting of senior cabinet and military officials in the capital, Islamabad.
The banned militant group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, has aggressively conducted attacks in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir and elsewhere over the years, and Pakistani officials say it also has ties with the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda.
It was not immediately clear from the official statement how many Jaish members had been arrested. But officials said that raids were being conducted to seal any of the group’s offices that might still be operational.
“Based on the initial investigations in Pakistan, and the information provided, several individuals belonging to Jaish-e-Muhammad have been apprehended,” a statement from the prime minister’s office said. “The offices of the organization are also being traced and sealed. Further investigations are underway.”
Indian officials have long accused the Pakistani military of nurturing groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad as proxies against India. And such groups have operated with relative impunity within Pakistan in recent years despite being officially outlawed.
That Pakistan’s military command — including the powerful army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, who was at the meeting to discuss the arrests — was willing to support action against Jaish-e-Muhammad, was taken as a promising sign.
“This is a very important step,” said Ayaz Amir, a noted Pakistani columnist, while talking to a private television news network. “It is a signal that we are distancing ourselves from the policies of the past.”
It was not clear, however, whether the arrests meant that foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, originally set for Friday but derailed after the attack, were back on.
In India, the minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss news reports that Jaish-e-Muhammad’s founder and leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, may have been among the people arrested in Pakistan on Wednesday. There was no confirmation from Pakistani officials, however.
Mr. Azhar, who is on India’s most-wanted list, was arrested in Kashmir in 1994, then released in 1999 in exchange for Indian passengers from a hijacked Indian Airlines plane. In 2001, he was accused of planning an attack on the Indian Parliament that left nine people dead.
A spokesman for Mr. Modi’s party said the arrests were “a positive step.”
“If Pakistan acts against terrorism, then it is good for the people of both countries, because terrorists are enemies of the humanity,” said Shrikant Sharma, head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s media cell.
Improving relations with India has been a priority for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who hosted Mr. Modi at his home in Lahore during a surprise visit by the Indian leader on Dec. 25.
But in the past, such thaws have been met with suspicion by the more hawkish elements in each country. Border clashes or militant attacks have broken out with notable regularity after important moments of reconciliation.
That was the case with the Pathankot base attack, which came roughly a week after Mr. Modi’s good-will visit with Mr. Sharif. Six gunmen infiltrated the air force base, in India’s Punjab State, on Jan. 2 and held Indian forces at bay for days.
“The objective obviously was to derail the Pak-India peace process,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani security analyst. “There could be nervousness after Indian P.M. Modi’s visit to Lahore.” She agreed that moving against Jaish-e-Muhammad, which was strongly suspected in the attack, was an important gesture.
In addition to Prime Minister Sharif and General Sharif, who are not related, the senior-level Pakistani meeting was attended by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan; Finance Minister Ishaq Dar; the chief minister of Punjab Province, Shahbaz Sharif; the chief foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz; the military intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar; and other senior civil, military and police officials.
Ellen Barry contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Waqar Gillani from Lahore, Pakistan.