Pakistani officials have detained scores of militants in what they say is a major crackdown on al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. But observers claim the army is also targeting political activists to silence dissent.
Asim Saleem Bajwa, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, told reporters on Friday, February 12, that security forces had arrested some 100 militants in the southern city of Karachi, including some from al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP.
"The arrests were made over a period of time, starting from the first arrest made a few months ago," Bajwa said, adding that the suspects were planning major terrorist attacks in Karachi and other cities.
The military spokesman said the banned organizations wanted to attack a prison in Hyderabad – a city close to Karachi – and free Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted for the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
DW correspondent Rafat Saeed says the Pakistani army is increasingly focusing on Karachi and the militant groups active in the financial hub.
"Bajwa said that Army Chief Raheel Sharif was keen on eradicating terrorism from Karachi. He wants peace and stability in the metropolis," Saeed told DW from Karachi. "The spokesman said the operation in the city would continue for an indefinite time," he added.
But rights groups say the army is using the war against terrorism as a way to target political dissidents, mostly belonging to the liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party and the Baloch separatist groups.
Human rights organizations complain that the government has introduced a number of security laws that allow the army, particularly its paramilitary force called The Rangers, to arrest dissidents.
On January 16, human rights defender Saeed Baloch was arrested by Pakistani forces in Karachi. There have been no official charges against him, but activists say the authorities suspect Baloch has links to separatist groups in the oil and gas-rich province of Balochistan.
"The authorities are using the laws as a means to harass political opponents such as the nationalists in the western Balochistan province, or other political parties that are disliked by the military," Islamabad-based civil society activist and researcher Salim Shah told DW.
MQM officials accuse the Rangers of targeting their members and activists on the pretext of combating terrorism. While Islamist parties continue to receive the military's patronage, the MQM and the Pakistan People's Party of former president Asif Ali Zardari are being "victimized," some experts say.
US-based Islamism and Pakistan expert Arif Jamal believes the main purpose of the army operation in Karachi is to target mainstream political parties and create space for jihadist groups.
"The irony is that terrorist organizations such as Jamatud Dawa are openly recruiting and fundraising in Pakistan while the army is accusing politicians of funding terrorism," Arif told DW.