KARACHI -- Facing an uptick in sectarian attacks in Karachi in recent days, law enforcement agencies are launching a widespread crackdown on groups aiming to sow sectarian discord.
At least 20 sectarian killings took place in Karachi between November 9 and 11, according to media reports. The victims belonged to both the Shia and Sunni communities.
Although a non-stop crackdown that the para-military Rangers launched in September 2013 has shattered various Taliban networks in Karachi, authorities blame criminal gangs and the militant wings of ethno-political parties for fostering a resurgence in sectarian violence.
The Sindh provincial cabinet during a November 7 meeting reiterated zero tolerance for elements fanning sectarian unrest, a handout from the Chief Minister House said.
"The government has started an operation against terrorists, especially those fanning sectarian strife in Karachi," Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said while presiding over the cabinet meeting.
The recent rise in sectarian attacks is spoiling law enforcement agencies' three-year effort to bring peace in the city, Maula Baksh Chandio, spokesman for the chief minister, said.
"The Sindh government [...] decided to act against sectarian outfits involved in killings," Chandio told Pakistan Forward, adding that such action will apply to all sectarian groups and that no pressure from political parties will be tolerated.
Arrests and crackdowns
The recent arrests of individuals from both sects corroborate the government's claims.
Law enforcement agencies have made dozens of arrests in the past few days. They detained Allama Taj Muhammad Hanfi, the secretary general of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jumaat (ASWJ) in Karachi, and Shia scholar Allama Mirza Yousaf Hussain, prompting violent protests and clashes November 7.
The Karachi Police Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD), also on November 7, hailed the arrests of two suspected members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group, who were reportedly involved in killing Sufi singer Amjad Sabri in the city June 22.
"Two militants -- Asim alias Capri and Ishaq alias Bobby -- were arrested in the Liaquatabad area, and after a probe and forensic investigation, we found evidence that they were involved in 28 cases, including the murder of Sabri," Raja Umar Khatab, a senior CTD officer, told Pakistan Forward.
Besides Sabri's slaying, both are accused of attacking security personnel, judges and Shia worshippers who were attending religious gatherings in Karachi, he said.
"We recovered a large quantity of weapons and ammunition from their possession," he said.
Meanwhile, police November 8 in Manghopir killed Yousaf Qudoosi, the ASWJ leader in Orangi Town, in a shoot-out. Police said several of his accomplices escaped during the battle, The Nation reported.
Also, in the early hours November 11, a force comprised of the Frontier Corps, Sindh Rangers and police killed Saqib Anjum, chief of Jundullah Pakistan, a militant group associated with the TTP.
"Acting on a tip-off by intelligence agencies, the Rangers anti-terrorist force [...] conducted an operation at a suspected militant hideout in the Hub area of Balochistan," a statement read by a Rangers spokesman said.
During an exchange of fire, the Jundullah chief and nominated deputy chief of the TTP in Sindh was killed, the statement said.
Anjum masterminded a number of high-profile terror attacks in Karachi and Balochistan, the spokesman said. These include an attack on the vehicle of then-Karachi Corps Commander Gen. Ahsan Saleem; a failed suicide bombing targeting Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) chief Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman in Quetta; the assassination of Bilal Shaikh, chief security officer of former president Asif Ali Zardari, in Karachi; and attacks on religious minority communities.
Karachi hotspot of sectarian violence, officials say
Karachi is one of Pakistan's most active areas of violence between Sunni Deobandi and Shia groups, where a cycle of tit-for-tat killings occurs regularly, law enforcement officials and security analysts say.
These groups carry out surveillance of active members, professionals and religious clerics of rival sects and they strike whenever they find an opportunity, said Khatab, the senior CTD officer.
Proscribed militant groups in Karachi, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, LeJ and Jundullah, share operational and ideological ties with al-Qaeda and the TTP, said Raees Ahmed, an independent researcher covering militancy in Karachi.
"After the successful Operation Zarb-e-Azb in tribal areas, these militant outfits found new sanctuaries in the northern Sindh-Balochistan border areas," he told Pakistan Forward. "There, they're planning to attack Shia community and government interests in Karachi and the rest of the province."
Zarb-e-Azb is an army counter-insurgency operation focused on North Waziristan that has gone on since June 2014.
In retaliation for killings by Sunni militants, Shia militant groups such as Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan have been aggressive in Karachi too, Ahmed said. Although Shia leaders deny the existence of militants in their community, he said, Shia militant outfits exist and are assassinating Sunni clerics in the city.
In a letter from the Karachi CTD chief earlier in November, the department requested that the federal government take action against militant groups providing sanctuary to LeJ and TTP militants in Khuzdar District, Balochistan. The CTD is awaiting a response to its request.