WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) -- Pakistan announced Tuesday the death of Riaz Basra, a man linked to dozens, if not hundreds, of sectarian murders across the country.
Basra headed the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi group of Sunni militants and carried a bounty of $83,000 on his head, one of the highest offered by the Pakistani government.
Basra was among four gunmen killed while attacking the house of a man who had complained of sectarian killings of Shiite Muslims, police said.
The provincial police in Punjab claimed to have killed Basra in April 1999. Basra responded to that "claim" by sending a letter to then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, forcing the police to retract the statement.
"But this time we are absolutely sure it is Basra," said police Superintendent Javed Ali Shah of the southern Vehari district, where police said the fugitive was killed.
"People will still have problem believing their claim. They will want solid evidence," said Agha Murtaza Haider, a Pakistani professor at Canada's McGill University.
"We have carried out identification and we are certain we have killed Basra," countered Shah.
The gunfight that killed Basra followed a wave of deadly attacks blamed on rival groups from the majority Sunni and the minority Shiite Muslim sects.
"When the police party approached the village (where Basra was killed), the terrorists opened fire on us. We returned the fire, killing all four suspected terrorists on the spot," said Shah.
President Pervez Musharraf banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi last year during a crackdown on extremist religious groups. Although it was formed before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, it has developed close ties with the regime and the militia allegedly trained many of the group's members.
Police say Basra and other prominent Sunni extremists had sanctuaries in the Taliban-run Afghanistan, often hiding there to avoid arrest. Basra was on a list of wanted terrorists Pakistan had sent to the Taliban before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The Taliban rejected Pakistan's request to extradite him and his associates.
Musharraf's decision to dump Pakistan's Taliban allies after Sept. 11 has further angered the extremists who have launched a string of attacks across Pakistan since March. Last week, they ambushed a Pakistan navy bus in southern port city of Karachi and killed 11 French naval experts.
"Jhangvi is the most extremist among all the terrorist groups active in Pakistan," said Haider. "It has killed hundreds of people during the last 10 years."
Basra formed Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in 1988, after splitting from his parent organization, Sipah-i-Sahaba. It is named after a Sunni cleric killed in a retaliatory attack by the Shiites. Police say that the two groups have maintained close ties despite the split and often conduct joint operations.
The Jhangvi was most active between 1996 and 1998, targeting Shiites across Pakistan. In January 1998, its militants attacked a Shiite funeral procession in Lahore and killed 25 people.
The first violent incident the police attribute to this group was the murder of an Iranian diplomat, Sadique Ganjavi, in Lahore in December 1990.
In 1992, they attacked a Shiite graveyard in the northwestern city of Peshawar and killed 12 people. They also blasted several graves with grenades.
The police also blame the group for killing the brother of current Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider in Karachi last year. In August 1996, the group allegedly killed the head of the district government in Sargodha, who was a Shiite.
The interior minister told a briefing in Washington last week that since March this year Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba, which operatives as a political front for Sunni extremists, have killed "dozens of doctors, lawyers, religious scholars and government officials."
"These militants are so fanatic that when they are arrested, they do not even deny their crimes. They proudly own murdering innocent people," said the minister.
According to statistics released by the Pakistani police, more than 250 people died in sectarian violence last year, more than 150 were killed in 2000, 90 in 1999, 160 in 1998, 200 in 1997 and 100 in 1996. Most of these were Shiites, killed by Basra's group and its parent organization.
Police say that Basra personally participated in several of these attacks, killing dozens of people.
Police say that in December 1999, his group rigged a bridge near the private residence of the former prime minister in Lahore. The bomb exploded minutes before Sharif was scheduled to cross the bridge.
When Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the former prime minister's younger brother, increased the pressure on the group, Basra reportedly had his picture taken with the chief minister at a wedding reception and sent it back to him with a note saying that he would be the next target if he did not call off the police campaign.
The chief minister is believed to have obliged him.
"When someone has such a record, you can understand why people find it difficult to believe police's claim that they have killed Basra," said Haider.