LAHORE - Security forces, in the wake of killings of Malik Ishaq, chief of LeJ, and his other comrades in an ‘armed encounter’, launched a Punjab-wide crackdown amid heightened security and apprehended more than 1,800 suspects, officials said Thursday.

Earlier, the killings sparked violent protests in Rahim Yar Khan, the hometown of LeJ chief, as the bodies arrived for burial late on Wednesday evening.

A day earlier, police killed Malik Ishaq, chief of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and his 13 other accomplices in an ‘armed encounter’ in Muzaffargarh district.

According to police, the overall law and order situation is under control across the province where no untoward incident took place on Thursday. At least two people were killed and two cops injured apparently in a reprisal attack on a police check-post in Gujrat district on Wednesday evening.

“This is the right and an appropriate time that the (entire) police force should stay alert,” a police spokesperson quoted Punjab police chief, Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera, as telling the field officers on Thursday.

The provincial police chief also directed the officers to beef up security in sensitive areas and around important buildings and key government installations. An official said Thursday that special search operations were underway all over the Punjab province to hunt down suspected militants.

“In this way, at least 143 search operations have been conducted in all 36 districts of the province during the last 24 hours. The police have arrested 1,854 suspects including 15 proclaimed offenders (POs) and 24 target offenders (TOs).”

According to the Punjab’s Central Police Office, the police also recovered huge cache of weapons, ammunition, and explosive material from the arrested suspects. The police have also registered at least 414 cases against the suspected militants detained during the search operations.

On the instructions of the Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP), the spokesperson says, security has been beefed up and the police will remain on high-alert across the province. The police patrolling has also been intensified around important government/non-government offices, educational institutions, markets, bridges, flyovers, underpasses, bus-terminals, and at all the entry and exit points of the big cities.

Similarly, search operations are also being conducted by the Punjab police in all areas particularly in hotels, restaurants, tea-houses, hostels, guesthouses, rented accommodations and in the localities where foreigners are residing illegally.

The police chief has ordered the field officers to intensify armed patrolling in the sensitive and the most sensitive areas to create a sense of security among the citizens.

Fearing reprisal attacks, the security was also intensified around police headquarters and cops stations in Lahore. While talking to The Nation on Thursday, DIG (Operations) Dr Haider Ashraf said the police made extraordinary security arrangements to thwart the nefarious designs of anti-state elements. He said snap-checking was also increased at all the entry and exit points of the provincial metropolis where cops were searching every vehicle and each passenger.

A police officer, requesting anonymity, said armed patrolling has been intensified around Shia-populated neighborhoods while heavy police contingents were also on guard around leading Imambargahs in the province.

Angry protests flared into violence at the funeral for Malik Ishaq. “Protesters tried to damage an Imambargah and private properties as they attacked police with stones,” district police officer Tariq Mastoi said.

Mastoi said police flooded the streets with around 5,000 officers and brought the disturbances under control. Hours later, a group of around 10 militants attacked a police post in Gujrat, sparking a gunbattle that left two attackers dead and two policemen seriously wounded. Malik Mansoor, a senior police official in Gujrat district, said LeJ members armed with guns and hand grenades attacked the post apparently to avenge the killing of Ishaq and other senior commanders.

“One of the killed militants has been identified as Muhammad Mumtaz, who is a long-time activist of LeJ and was wanted in several cases of targeted killings,” he said.

Wednesday’s shootout appears to have wiped out much of the top leadership of LeJ, a driving force in a rising tide of violence targeting minorities.

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.

Terming the killings a big blow to terrorists, a spokesperson for the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) on Wednesday said, “A chapter of target killings in South Punjab has been closed.”

As part of the national action plan, the security, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies are tightening the screw around militants and hardcore clerics in the country. The clampdown was intensified on militants after Taliban gunmen slaughtered more than 130 children at Army Public School in Peshawar in December.

The law enforcement agencies stepped up security in Bahawalnagar, Muzaffargarh, and Pakpattan districts in the wake of possible retaliatory attacks. DPO Muntazir Mehdi claimed the law and order situation was under control. Ghulam Rasool Shah, deputy to the LeJ chief, Malik Ishaq, was a resident of Bahawalnagar. His funeral was offered at around 1:30am after midnight on Wednesday. Later, his supporters clashed with police and reportedly they pelted the police with stones. However, the LEAs managed to disperse the protesters. Earlier, the district administration imposed Section 144 in the district to keep the things under control.

On the other hand, scores of workers of the banned outfit along with seminary students staged a protest demonstration against killings.

The protesters assembled at Bahawali Chowk and staged a demonstration against the Punjab government. The club-wielding workers also tried to clash with the police but the attempt was foiled by the security personnel. Shopkeepers in the town put their shutters down to avert any untoward incident. Despite tight security measures adopted by the law enforcement agencies, the situation is tense in some districts of the Southern Punjab.

In Pakpattan, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) arrested a member of the banned outfit during a crackdown on Thursday. Sources said the CTD staff launched search operation in Chak Houta and arrested a member of the defunct organization. He was shifted to an undisclosed location for investigation.

In Muzaffargarh, the police detained seven activists of the banned outfit including those put under the Fourth Schedule for three months. They were identified as Muhammad Bilal son of Allah Divaya (Sanawan), Muhammad Sharif son of Khuda Bakhsh, Nasir Abbas, Muhammad Younas, Muhammad Zahid, Intizar Sheikh and Zahid Ali. (With input from agencies and our correspondents in Bahawalnagar, Muzaffargarh, and Pakpattan districts)