ISLAMABAD • After years of living in the open in Pakistan despite a US$10 million (S$14.2 million) US bounty on his head, the militant leader accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai attacks has been placed under house arrest in Lahore, Pakistani officials said.
The move against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), came amid a reported new round of pressure by the United States to arrest Saeed and to ban Jamaat-ud- Dawwa (JuD), the charity he leads which has been accused by US officials of being a front for militants.
The News, a Pakistani English-language newspaper, reported on Monday that US officials in the latter days of the Obama administration had threatened sanctions or other penalties if action was not taken.
A senior Defence Ministry official said the government had not been contacted by the new US administration but had been feeling US pressure on the issue.
"(President Donald) Trump is taking hard decisions against Muslim countries, there is open talk of actions against Pakistan also. So yes, this was a consideration," said the official, who declined to be identified.
On Monday, Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced that action against JuD was being discussed and that a decision would be announced yesterday.
Who is Hafiz Muhammad Saeed?
Saeed, 71, is a retired professor of Islamic studies who founded the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or Army of Pure, militant group in 1990.
For years, the Pakistani military establishment used LeT and other militant groups as proxy forces in Kashmir, over which Pakistan and India have been battling for control since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.
Several Singapore Jemaah Islamiah members have trained in LeT camps.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) is considered by the United States and India to be a front for LeT.
On Nov 26, 2008, 10 gunmen from Pakistan infiltrated Mumbai by boat and killed 166 people in a rampage that included attacks on two luxury hotels.
India blames LeT for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Saeed is believed by the US State Department to be one of the masterminds, and has had a US$10 million (S$14.2 million) bounty on his head since 2012.
Saeed denies ordering the Mumbai attacks and has distanced himself from the LeT, while leading JuD.
The US has listed both the LeT and JuD as "foreign terrorist" organisations.
Hours after the announcement, police officers arrived at the group's headquarters in Lahore and placed Saeed under house arrest. They later banned the media from the scene as about 100 Saeed supporters chanted slogans.
Saeed and his supporters accused Pakistan of acquiescing to the wishes of the US and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
U.S. AND INDIA BLAMED
This is taking place because of Modi's insistence, Trump's pressure and Pakistan's helplessness.
HAFIZ MUHAMMAD SAEED, founder of banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, on his house arrest.
"This is taking place because of Modi's insistence, Trump's pressure and Pakistan's helplessness," Saeed told the media late on Monday as he was being led away.
He has denied ordering the Mumbai attacks and has distanced himself from the LeT, while leading his charity.
In the past decade, the group has provided aid to those hit by natural disasters, and in some areas where the government has failed to provide basic necessities, JuD has worked to fill the void.
Therefore, Saeed has sympathisers and supporters across a large spectrum of society, and Pakistani officials have been wary of a potentially violent backlash if they move against the militant leader.
The detention order placed JuD and a foundation tied to it on a watch list, and also ordered the detention of four other members.
JuD organisers said yesterday that protests were planned in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.
JuD spokesman Nadeem Awan confirmed that the detention order would be challenged in court.
In recent months, Saeed has been holding regular news conferences to denounce a security crackdown in the Indian-controlled part of the divided Kashmir region.
"If they believe that they can throw the Kashmir issue into the background through our arrests and our confinement, that is not possible," he said after his arrest.
Other government officials have said recently that a broader diplomatic campaign - pushed by India - to isolate Pakistan over its perceived failure to stamp out militancy has taken a toll, even involving pressure from long-time ally China. India's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
This is not the first time that Saeed has been under house arrest, but he has repeatedly avoided long-term detention or serious legal charges. He was placed under detention at least twice after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people. India claimed almost immediately then that Saeed was the mastermind of the terrorist attacks.
A Pakistani anti-terrorism court is trying six suspects in the case: Mazhar Iqbal, Hammad Amin Sadiq, Abdul Wajid, Shahid Jameel Riaz, Jamil Ahmed and Younus Anjum.
Another important suspect, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, considered the operational head of LeT, is out on bail.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE