New Delhi: Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar has died in Islamabad, unconfirmed media reports said on Sunday, two days after Pakistan publicly admitted to his presence amid heightened tensions with India.
Azhar was admitted to an army hospital in Islamabad and died on Saturday, the reports claim. Speculation also intensified on Twitter with #MasoodAzharDEAD trending at the top on Sunday evening. Pakistan, however, are yet to officially confirm or announce Azhar’s death.
In an interview to CNN on March 1, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had confirmed that Azhar was in his country and that he was “really unwell”.
"He is in Pakistan, according to my information. He is unwell to the extent that he can't leave his house, because he's really unwell," Qureshi had said, adding that the Pakistan government would act against him only if New Delhi presented "solid" and "inalienable" evidence that can stand in a court of law.
Refuting the rumours in the country, Pakistan's Geo Urdu News quoted unnamed sources close to Azhar's family as saying that the JeM chief was "alive", without elaborating on his health condition.
India has been trying to get Azhar designated a global terrorist by the UN and had intensified lobbying for the same following the February 14 Pulwama attack in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed. The Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) had claimed responsibility for the attack.
On February 26, India had launched air strikes on what was said to be JeM’s biggest training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot. An intense aerial confrontation ensued between both countries the next day, in which IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured by Pakistan. His release on Friday capped a week of uncertainty and war-mongering on both sides.
India had this week also handed over a dossier to Pakistan reportedly detailing the role of the JeM in plotting and carrying out the Pulwama attack, daring Pakistan PM Imran Khan to walk the talk on acting against terror.
WHO IS MASOOD AZHAR?
Masood Azhar was born in 1968 to an elementary school teacher in Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Azhar originally entered Jammu and Kashmir on a Portuguese passport and established contact with numerous militant groups. He was detained by Indian authorities on terrorism charges in 1994. He reportedly bragged to his jailers that they would not be able to keep him in custody.
An AFP profile of him said that at one point, he and other militants dug an escape tunnel, and when the moment came, Azhar insisted on going first. "But he got stuck in the narrow tunnel because of his bulky physique and the whole attempt was thwarted," the official said.
He remained in prison until the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi – IC 814 – was hijacked on Christmas Eve in 1999, eventually landing in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, at the time under Taliban rule. One of the hijackers, Ibrahim Athar, was reported to be Azhar's younger brother.
For eight days, the world watched in horror as hijackers held the passengers hostage, the drama ending only when New Delhi agreed to release three militants, including Masood Azhar who later went on to found the JeM.
Amir Rana, a security analyst who has carried out extensive research on Pakistani militant groups, told AFP that Azhar reportedly met with Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar in Afghanistan after he was freed.
Azhar formed JeM in 2000 and a year later the group was blamed for a brazen attack on Parliament in which militants killed 10 people, bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Azhar was detained and placed under house arrest, but a court in Lahore ordered his release in 2002, citing "lack of evidence".
As home-grown Pakistani militant groups turned their guns on the state after 9/11, Rana said Azhar was one of the few who kept a low profile.
The JeM struck again in 2016, killing 19 Indian soldiers in an attack on a military base in J&K’s Uri. Azhar was again taken into "protective custody", but never formally charged.
Last July, he addressed supporters in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’s Muzaffarabad by telephone from an undisclosed location, claiming he had hundreds of militants ready to fight to the death. The speech had prompted India to tighten security at airports in anticipation of another hijacking.
Azhar, meanwhile, has not been directly heard from since. The US Treasury Department website still gives his home address as a location in Pakistan’s Bahawalpur district, although his exact whereabouts remained shrouded in mystery.
THE CHINESE WALL
As well as Pakistan, JeM is also banned by the United Nations and India, while the US State Department lists it as a terrorist organisation.
However, Masood Azhar has not been declared a terrorist, despite New Delhi and others trying several times to get the UN Security Council to name him as one, with the move blocked each time by Pakistan's all-weather friend China.
Diplomats had said this week that France, Britain and the US were considering a fresh push at the Security Council to place Azhar on the UN terror list, but once more face opposition by China.