Pakistan arrests ex-leader of Islamic militant group

Pakistan said today it had arrested the outspoken former leader of a militant Islamic group accused by India of helping orchestrate an attack on its Parliament that has taken the two countries to the brink of hostilities.

Pakistan said today it had arrested the outspoken former leader of a militant Islamic group accused by India of helping orchestrate an attack on its Parliament that has taken the two countries to the brink of hostilities.

Hafiz Saeed, until last week the leader of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, was charged with making inflammatory speeches and inciting people to violence, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) reported. It quoted official sources in the government.

It was not immediately clear where Saeed was being held or if he was in jail or under house arrest, which the government has often used to restrict the movement of militant leaders without further angering their constituencies.

APP gave no further details, though Interior Ministry officials confirmed his detention this morning.

The arrest comes at a pivotal point in tensions between Pakistan and India, longtime uneasy neighbours and the only nuclear powers in the region.

After a December 13 suicide attack on India’s Parliament, India claimed the Pakistani spy agency and two Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups - Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammed - orchestrated the attack.

Pakistan says India has offered no evidence and is fabricating the charges to malign the secessionist movement in its disputed Kashmir region. But it has also said that, if India presents credible proof, it will take action to rein in any militants who might be involved.

Last week, the Pakistani military said civil officials had arrested Jaish-e-Mohammad’s leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, part of what they said was a response to India’s demands. He remained in custody today in a prison in Sargodha, in central Pakistan, the government said.

Saeed quit the leadership of Lashkar a week ago, saying he wanted to remove himself so India would not have ‘‘malicious propaganda’’ to use against Pakistan.

Saeed, who is in his late 40s, is a professor at the University of Lahore in eastern Pakistan, near India. He has long been a vocal opponent of Indian rule in Kashmir, and Lashkar has been active in opposing New Delhi’s rule in the disputed region.

His colleagues denounced the arrest.

‘‘This is a highly condemnable act. He was just preaching Islam in Pakistan. He had never been involved in any kind of terrorism,’’ said Mohammad Raza, an Islamic leader in Lahore and a close colleague of Saeed.

Lashkar admits attacking military targets in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir but says it has never targeted civilians.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since British rule ended on the subcontinent in 1947, and two have been over predominantly Muslim Kashmir, where Islamic guerrillas are fighting for independence or merger with Pakistan.

Last week, the US designated both Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed as supporters of terrorism. It has asked President Musharraf to crack down on such groups as part of the global anti-terrorism effort that Washington is leading.

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