- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

A Muslim militant group considered the prime suspect in the killings of 16 Christians in southern Pakistan earlier this week has a history of violence against religious minorities.
Six masked gunmen entered a church in the southeastern Pakistani town of Bahawalpur during a Sunday service and sprayed the congregation with bullets. Sixteen worshippers, mostly children, were killed and at least 25 were injured.
Police officials told journalists in Islamabad on Tuesday they had arrested 13 suspects in connection with the massacre but did not identify them.
However, officials at the Interior Ministry in Islamabad said that a militant outfit called Jaish-i-Mohammed, or the Army of Mohammed, was the prime suspect and that most of those arrested had links with the group. Jaish-i-Mohammed also has strong links with Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, and many of its militants reportedly have been trained in Afghanistan.
"Bahawalpur is the hometown of the group's leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, and he has many followers there," said an official at the Interior Ministry.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf vowed to capture the killers. "The method, the timing and the planning all indicate the involvement of a very organized terrorist group," said Gen. Musharraf.
Since the attack Pakistan has increased security at churches and promised a thorough investigation. The State Department describes Jaish-i-Mohammed as an Islamist group based in Pakistan "that has rapidly expanded in size and capability since its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, formed it in February 2001."
Police officials in Pakistan say that although the name Jaish-i-Mohammed is new, most of its members have been operating as terrorists for years under various names.
"Most of the group's ringleaders are old-timers. They have been active both against the [Muslim religious minority] Shi'ites and the Christians," said an official probing the murders.
Pakistani officials said many in Jaish-i-Mohammed started their "careers in terrorism" with Sipah-i-Sahaba of Pakistan's majority Sunni sect of the Muslims. Authorities in Pakistan blame Sipah-i-Sahaba for killing hundreds of Shi'ites.
"It was this group that first started assassinations or targeted killings of prominent Shi'ite citizens. They targeted and killed hundreds of Shi'ite intellectuals including doctors, lawyers, engineers and religious scholars. They turn their guns on the Christians only when they think they can get political mileage out of these killings, like in the current situation," the official said.
Since Oct. 7, when the U.S.-led air strikes against Afghanistan began, several Muslim militant groups had threatened to kill Pakistani Christians if Washington did not stop the military operation.
A tiny minority in Pakistan, most Christians were low-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity during British rule, which ended in 1947.
"It is easy to target the poor and that's why the Christians are a target," said Tariq Mahmood, who teaches anthropology at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University.
Jaish-i-Mohammed's leader, Mr. Azhar, started with the ultrafundamentalist Harakat-ul-Ansar group. In the mid-1990s, he went to fight against Indian troops in Kashmir. He was arrested during a guerrilla operation in Kashmir and jailed.
He was released in December 1999 in exchange for 155 hijacked Indian Airlines hostages in Afghanistan. When he returned to Pakistan, the U.S. government had declared his Harakat-ul-Ansar group "a foreign terrorist organization" after the 1994 kidnapping of U.S. and British residents in New Delhi and the July 1995 kidnappings of Western citizens in Kashmir.
Its militants regrouped as Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, which was declared a terrorist group by the State Department and was outlawed by Pakistan.
Mr. Azhar, however, had created a new group, Jaish-i-Mohammed.
On Oct. 1, a suicide bombing on the Kashmir state legislature killed 40 persons. Jaish-i-Mohammed claimed responsibility but later denied involvement.
Jaish-i-Mohammed strongly opposes Gen. Musharraf's decision to back the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan. It emerged as the prime suspect when masked gunmen killed 16 Christians in Mr. Azhar's hometown. Officials say they are trying to determine whether Mr. Azhar, who has been placed under house arrest since Oct. 7, is directly involved in the attack.


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