Pakistani police say they have disrupted a plot to assassinate the prime minister and other top officials after engaging in a shootout with Islamist militants on Wednesday.
Seven men accused of being part of the al Qaeda-linked militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been arrested. Pakistani officials say the men were planning to storm Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's home in Multan in a gun-and-suicide-bomb attack.
Authorities stumbled upon the plot during a routine check of vehicles near Bahawalpur. The men started firing after police tried to stop their car.
"The investigation uncovered a plot to hit VIPs in Pakistan. The main target was the prime minister," a Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss details of the case.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also was on the terrorists' hit list. Multan is the hometown of both Mr. Gilani and Mr. Qureshi.
The Pakistani official said the militants had been tracking Mr. Gilani's movements and his private residence in Multan. The prime minister's movements are a closely guarded secret, and he travels under heavy security.
The arrested men also were involved in a robbery, and police recovered arms and ammunition from them.
The next court hearing for the seven men has been set for Oct. 27.
The State Department designated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as a foreign terrorist group in 2003.
A militant offshoot of the Sunni Deobandi sectarian group Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has been focused primarily on attacking Pakistan's minority Shias. After it was banned by the Pakistani government in 2001, many of the group's members took refuge with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"This terrorist group has been focused primarily on attacks in the region, but you can never rule out the possibility that they might look to do bad things elsewhere," a U.S. counterterrorism official said on condition of anonymity.
The Pakistani official said the group's members are not allowed to function or maintain any accounts within Pakistan. "Pakistan's government is fully committed and determined to go after militants. This is the first time that this commitment is supported by political will," the official said.
Mr. Qureshi, the foreign minister, will lead a delegation at a U.S.-Pakistani strategic dialogue in Washington next week. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will lead the U.S. side.
One of the items on the agenda will be a review of progress made by Pakistan in the fight against terrorists.
U.S. officials and analysts say Pakistan's historic ties to militant groups have complicated the effort to root out terrorists and that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency still maintains ties to some militant groups.
"It's no secret that Pakistan has had historical ties to certain militant groups. That's created complexities, and everyone's eyes are wide open to them," a second U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there is no "single relationship" between elements within the ISI and the militants.
"Relations exist on a spectrum. At one end are those considered to be enemies of the state [the Pakistani Taliban], which must be eliminated. At the other are those like [the anti-India group Lashkar-e-Taiba] that are viewed as maintaining utility against India and posing lower immediate costs because they don't actively attack the Pakistani state," Mr. Tankel said.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is active primarily in Punjab province and in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Pakistani and U.S. officials say Lashkar-e-Jhangvi members were involved in the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.
Pakistani leaders also have been the target of terrorists for several years.
In 1999, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi tried to assassinate former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shabaz, who was chief minister of Punjab province.
In 2003, then-President Pervez Musharraf narrowly escaped two assassination attempts within days in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Terrorists claimed a prominent target four years later when they killed former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she was leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007. The government of Pakistan blamed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud for masterminding that attack.
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