Lahore (Pakistan) (AFP) - The leader of an anti-Shiite group behind some of Pakistan's worst sectarian atrocities was killed in a shootout with police early Wednesday along with 13 other militants, authorities said.
Malik Ishaq was shot dead along with fellow Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, including senior commanders, in the eastern province of Punjab.
LeJ, long seen as close to Al-Qaeda and more recently accused of developing links with the Islamic State group, has a reputation as one of Pakistan's most ruthless militant groups.
The shootout appears to have wiped out much of the top leadership of LeJ, a driving force in a rising tide of violence targeting Shiite Muslims, who make up around 20 percent of Pakistan's 200 million majority Sunni Muslim population.
As well as numerous sectarian atrocities, LeJ was also blamed for the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in the eastern city of Lahore.
Ishaq, who had been in and out of police custody in recent years, was arrested on Saturday and was being moved when loyalists attacked the convoy in Muzaffargarh, a senior police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The police retaliated and in the encounter Ishaq, his two sons and 11 others were killed, while six policemen were injured," he said.
Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada confirmed to AFP that Ishaq and "13 other sectarian militants including two of his sons" had been killed in the early hours of Wednesday.
According to a police account sent to journalists, the shootout came when LeJ militants tried to free Ishaq after police had taken him to recover a cache of explosives.
- Blow to militants -
A police official said all six militants in police custody were killed along with eight of the attackers, while some of the would-be rescuers fled.
Those killed reportedly included Ghulam Rasool Shah, a hardline LeJ chief who acted as the group's leader when Ishaq -- designated a global terrorist by the US State Department last year -- was behind bars.
Wednesday's killings are the latest blow to militancy in Pakistan, where in the past year authorities have cracked down hard on the myriad insurgent groups that have plagued the country for a decade.
The offensive intensified after Taliban gunmen slaughtered more than 130 children at a school in the northwest in December.
So-called "encounter" killings like Wednesday's incident have long aroused suspicion among rights activists in Pakistan, who accuse the authorities of using them as a means of disposing of troublesome militants and criminals without going through the courts.
Pakistan's legal system is notoriously slow and relies heavily on witness testimony rather than crime scene evidence.
Cases against militants affiliated with groups like LeJ often collapse because there is little protection from intimidation for judges or witnesses.
Security analyst Amir Rana said Wednesday's killings would have a "major impact" on LeJ, effectively finishing the group as a force in Punjab.
An intelligence official told AFP that Ishaq and his cohorts had fallen foul of the powerful security establishment by refusing to curtail their terror activities.
"The security establishment under a policy shift wanted to eliminate all terrorists and curtail extremists, but Ishaq and his group did not pay any attention to this advice," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The authorities believed he had changed loyalties... and was no more merely an anti-Shiite militant, instead a tool of the forces creating unrest in Pakistan."
Ishaq, born in southern Punjab in 1959, joined the sectarian organization Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan in the 1980s but left to form LeJ in 1996 and gained notoriety for his anti-Shiite rhetoric.
He was accused of masterminding dozens of attacks against Shiites.
Imprisoned in 1997 after being arrested on charges of murder, death threats and intimidation, he was freed in July 2011.
Under his leadership LeJ claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest attacks on Shiites in Pakistan's recent history, including two suicide bombings in the southwestern city of Quetta in early 2013 that killed more than 180 people.
There have long been accusations that the authorities have quietly tolerated LeJ, which was created from the same pool of fighters trained and nurtured by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States in the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.