MUZAFFARGARH - The leader of an anti-Shia militant group behind some of Pakistan’s worst sectarian atrocities was killed in a shootout with police early Wednesday along with 13 others, including his two sons and a deputy.

Police said Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) chief Malik Muhammad Ishaq was taken into custody along with five others including his sons, Muhammad Usman and Haq Nawaz, on July 24 by Multan Counter Terrorism Department (CTD).

Police said a convoy taking the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) detainees to Muzaffargarh for identification of arms was attacked by Ishaq’s aides near Shahwala Jungle in a bid to get him released, sparking a shootout in which six cops were also wounded.

The dead militants included Ghulam Rasool Shah, a hardline LeJ leader who acted as the group’s leader when Ishaq was behind bars, suggesting that the extremist group has suffered a serious blow as most of its top leadership has been eliminated.

The militant organisation founded by Ishaq has claimed responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, mostly Shias. Ishaq’s death, after decades during which he appeared to have been untouchable, could mark an important shift in the way Pakistan deals with militants, analysts said.

“We have received 14 bodies for post-mortem but I am unable to identify them,” said Dr Mushtaq Rasul, Medical Superintendent of Muzaffargarh DHQ Hospital. Muzaffargarh DPO Awais Ahmed Malik said it was a case of Multan Counter Terrorism Department and he was unable to explain the details of the encounter.

Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada and Superintendent of Police of Multan CTD, Abrar Khalil, confirmed the killings. The SP said Malik Ishaq, his two sons and three other associates were arrested six days ago for targeted killings of eight people.

Ishaq had given police the location of other militants and an arms cache there, Muzaffargarh police spokesman Adnan Shehzad told Reuters. But a group of men on motorcycles ambushed the police convoy as it arrived in the early hours of Wednesday, he said.

“Twelve to 15 terrorists attacked the police party ... freed the accused and fled away on motorcycles,” a police spokeswoman, Nabila Ghazanfar, quoted a policeman in the area as saying in a message. Police further along the road attacked the gunmen as they fled, killing Ishaq, his two sons, and 11 others, Nabila cited the policeman as saying. “The gang was also in league with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups operating in the area,” the police message said.

Police also claimed to have seized three water coolers full of explosive material, four hand grenade, three pistols, one Kalashnikov rifle, 600 rounds, one built magazine, one remote control and 12 batteries of 12 volt each.

The LeJ, which has a reputation as one of Pakistan’s most ruthless militant groups, was long seen as close to al-Qaeda but more recently it reportedly developed links with the Islamic State group. Police sources said Ishaq, who had been in and out of police custody in recent years, was also allegedly involved in planning and supporting sectarian killings and terrorism activities.

In recent years it carried out some of the most violent attacks on Shia Muslims, who make up around 20 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million majority Sunni Muslim population. The brutalities of Ishaq and his cohorts were equally condemned by mainstream Sunni population of the country. An official told that police on different times charged Ishaq with a total of 70 murders in 44 different cases but every time he escaped conviction because of lack of evidence against him.

Ishaq had been in detention for involvement in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, on the statement of one of the suspects, Zubair Maitla. The LeJ chief – designated a global terrorist by the US State Department last year – was also allegedly involved in attack on Iranian Cultural Centre in Multan on February 21, 1997 in which eight people - including a diplomat Muhammad Ali Rahimi - were killed.

Analysts said 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.

But the 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-Shia militant, instead a tool of the forces creating unrest in Pakistan.”