ISLAMABAD Islamist militants from groups linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban are suspected of being behind the mob violence that killed eight Christians in central Pakistan over the weekend, a senior government official said on Tuesday.
The army is battling a Taliban insurgency in the northwest, and there are fears that jihadis based in the central province of Punjab, where the attack on Christians took place, could become more active in trying to destabilize mostly-Muslim Pakistan.
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an outlawed pro-Taliban Sunni Muslim sectarian group, and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), were suspected of orchestrating the attack in Gojra town, according to Rana Sanaullah, Punjab's law minister.
Incensed by unsubstantiated allegations that the Koran had been desecrated by a Christian, an angry mob torched dozens of houses in the town Saturday, killing eight people, including four women and a child.
"Absolutely, these banned groups are involved in the rioting," Sanaullah, who is also responsible for the security matters of the province, told Reuters by telephone from Gojra.
Sanaullah said "masked men" had come from the nearby district of Jhang, birthplace of both SSP and LeJ, to incite the anti-Christian rioting in Gojra.
Around 150 people were detained for questioning.
The government received an intelligence report two months ago suggesting that militants were switching from suicide bombings to inciting sectarian strife in the country," Sanaullah said.
Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti held the same fears following the attack in Gojra.
"We suspect and we are getting evidence that members of banned organizations were involved in it," he told Reuters.
SSP was founded in the 1980s and is primarily connected to sectarian violence against minority Shi'ite Muslims. It was officially banned in January 2002.
LeJ, a splinter group of SSP, has forged ties with al Qaeda.
Militants from LeJ were behind a suicide truck bomb attack that killed 55 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last year, and LeJ members were also involved in attempts to assassinate former president Pervez Musharraf.
Minorities, including Christians, account for roughly four percent of Pakistan's 170 million population.
Muslims and minorities generally live in harmony but Islamist militants, angered by Pakistan's alliance with the United States since 2001, have carried out periodic attacks on them as part of a campaign to destabilize the state.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sanjeev Miglani)