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Politicians sheltering militants in Punjab?

* Outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan has reopened offices in Jhang since March by-elections
* Rana Sanaullah says govt hopes to moderate militant groups

JHANG: It’s a troubling trend in Punjab; leaders are tolerating and in some cases promoting some of the country’s most violent extremist militant groups.

Provincial officials have ignored repeated calls to crack down on militant groups with a strong presence in the province, with one senior minister campaigning publicly with members of an extremist group that calls for Shia Muslims to be killed.

Some of the militant groups are allied with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which claimed responsibility for a failed car bombing in New York last week. Jaish-e-Muhammed has also been implicated as having possible links to one of the people detained in Pakistan in connection with the bombing attempt.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif even asked militants not to attack his province – because he was not following the dictates of the US to fight them – much to the dismay of the federal government. “It makes Punjab a de facto sanctuary for militants and extremists that the Pakistan Army is fighting in the frontier and in the Tribal Areas,” said Aida Hussain, a former ambassador to the US. “In fact this is an undermining of the Armed Forces of Pakistan and it is an undermining of constitutional governance.”

Critics believe the policy of tolerance is a short sighted bid by the Sharif brothers for political support in the predominantly Sunni province.

Reopen: In Jhang, the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan has been emboldened by conciliatory signals from local authorities. After being courted for votes last March, the group ripped off yellow government seals and reopened its offices. Just a few kilometres from Lahore is the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which is banned in Pakistan, India, the US and other countries, but is now under provincial government protection. India blames the group for the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai and routinely harangues Pakistan for allowing its leader, Hafiz Saeed, to remain free.

And in Bawahalpur is the headquarters of Jaish-e-Muhammed, the group possibly linked to a suspect in the Times Square bombing case.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah defended his decision to campaign alongside members of the SSP in March. The minister said the organisation represents thousands of votes and cannot be ignored.

Moderate turn: He said groups like Jaish-e-Muhammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba were not taking part in the war against the Taliban, but only resisting Indian control of Kashmir. And he said the Punjab government was hoping to moderate such groups.

“If they change their direction, become more progressive, that is good,” he said. ap

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