ISLAMABAD - Authorities in Pakistan said Thursday that a nationwide counter-extremism effort has brought under government control 216 religious seminaries and educational institutions run by outlawed Islamist groups.
The federal interior ministry said in a statement provincial governments have also seized control of 176 mostly health-related welfare facilities, and scores of ambulances run by banned entities.
It said the operation is an ongoing effort to eradicate religious extremism, saying Pakistani "law enforcement agencies have placed 121 people under preventive detention as of today."
The intensified crackdown, critics say, is stemming from increased global pressure on Islamabad in the aftermath of a February 14 suicide bombing in the disputed Kashmir region that India blamed on Pakistan and was reportedly claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group.
Pakistani officials deny external pressure is behind the renewed push against militancy, but they have acknowledged a large number of suspects rounded up in recent days are linked to JeM. They have also confirmed that two brothers of Maulana Masood Azhar, who founded and runs JeM, are among the detainees.
Azhar and his brothers are on a list of suspects India has shared with Pakistan as part of its dossier into the February attack that targeted a security convoy in the Pulwama district.
The incident left more than 40 Indian security personnel dead. Pakistani authorities, however, have not issued an explanation for not detaining the JeM chief.
Pakistan is also under pressure from the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), to curb activities, financing and money laundering by terrorist groups. The country risks being blacklisted and coming under international sanctions if it fails to fully implement an action plan the global terrorism financing monitoring organization has outlined for Pakistan.
Officials say religious seminaries, health facilities and other entities that law enforcement agencies have brought under government control in recent days also include those linked to Jamatt-ud-Dawa (JuD) and its sister charity Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF).
Both organizations, outlawed last week, are known fronts for militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that India says orchestrated the deadly 2008 attacks on its financial capital, Mumbai. The United States and the United Nations have listed JeM, LeT, JuD and FIF as global terrorist groups.
JuD sources estimate it has nearly 300,000 members, including 30,000"hardcore" activists trained for combat. The organization has over the years established 700 Islamic schools and runs a countrywide ambulance service among other entities.
Pakistan denied any role in the February bombing in Kashmir and offered India cooperation in investigating the carnage and punishing any Pakistani if found guilty. The ensuing escalation in military tensions led to an Indian cross-border strike against alleged JeM training camps.
Pakistani jets undertook a similar action in retaliation the next day and shot down what officials said were two Indian fighter planes. An Indian pilot was captured but returned two days later, marking a reduction in military tensions.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has credited the United States among other global powers with helping to ease tensions with India through what he said was "private U.S. diplomacy."He did not elaborate further. U.S. officials have acknowledged using regional allies, particularly those in the Gulf, to help defuse the tensions.
Tens of thousands of religious seminaries in Pakistan, known as madrassas, remain a challenge for authorities in the wake of allegations that some are responsible for radicalizing youngsters, spreading religious hatred and encouraging them to fight alongside militants in foreign conflicts.
Analysts say the curriculum in most of the Islamic schools is confined to reading the Muslim holy book, the Quran, and other religion-based books, and very few of the schools teach modern science subjects.
Critics caution that attempts to marginalize madrassas without offering effective rehabilitation plans would deprive millions of children of poverty-stricken families from receiving any sort of education.