Masood Azhar (wearing glasses and white turban), leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad, arrives in Islamabad in 2000. (Mian Khursheed/AP)

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry announced Tuesday that authorities have arrested 44 people affiliated with outlawed organizations, including two relatives of the leader of an extremist group that claimed responsibility for a Feb. 14 terrorist attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Shehryar Afridi, the state minister of the interior, said a brother of Masood Azhar, the reclusive founder of Jaish-e-Muhammad, and another man believed to be his son were taken into custody Tuesday. Officials declined to identify the other detainees.

The whereabouts of Azhar, 50, are not publicly known, but there were unconfirmed reports Tuesday that the government would soon decide whether to arrest him. Pakistan’s foreign minister said last week that Azhar was in Pakistan but was not in good health.

The two arrested men, identified as Mufti Abdul Rauf and Hammad Azhar, were on a list of suspects submitted by India to Pakistani authorities in an official dossier after the bombing that killed 40 paramilitary policemen in Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries.

That attack triggered swift military retaliation from India, which sent fighter jets to bomb an alleged Jaish-e-Muhammad training camp and seminary inside Pakistan near the “Line of Control” that separates the two portions of Kashmir. Pakistan later carried out strikes of its own and shot down an Indian warplane, raising fears of further escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan eased the tensions somewhat by quickly returning the captured Indian pilot as international concern and pressure mounted. Khan also offered to investigate the bombing last week if India provided any “actionable evidence” of a connection to Pakistan. But Tuesday, Afridi said the arrests were not the result of foreign demands.

“The action is being taken for the national interest of Pakistan. We do not want allegations against Pakistan from the outside, and this action is not being taken under any pressure,” Afridi said in a statement. “This is our own decision.”

Khan, in a separate comment to journalists, declared that the government intends to take broad action against militant groups. “We don’t want to give the impression that we are against one organization,” he said.

India has long accused Pakistan of sheltering militant organizations that launch attacks across the Line of Control, and it has repeatedly demanded a crackdown on Jaish-e-Muhammad and other militant groups that use violence to try to force India to relinquish its claims on Kashmir. Pakistan has routinely denied those charges and said it provides only moral and political support for Kashmiri Muslim demands.

On Tuesday, Pakistan said the arrests were part of its newly reinvigorated national action plan against extremism, which was enacted under the previous government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif but never seriously implemented.

Afridi said the 44 suspects had already been under observation and that a decision was made Monday to “place them in preventive detention for investigation.” He also said that “if needed, the assets of banned outfits will also be confiscated.”

The government’s move was greeted with general approval from commentators and analysts in Pakistan, but they also urged caution. They noted that a serious crackdown would take sustained effort and would succeed only with support from the military, which has been widely reported to tacitly support some militant groups that share its hostility toward India.

“If the state does intend to confront and dismantle militant networks that are externally oriented, it will require careful and coordinated action across all tiers of government,” an editorial in Dawn newspaper observed Tuesday. “The goal should be unambiguous: ridding Pakistan of all forms of militancy, terrorism and religious extremism.”

The newspaper also noted that such militant groups have created large support bases that will not be easy to penetrate or eradicate. “The relevant networks that have to be dismantled are formidable,” it said. “There ought to be no illusions that vast networks built up over decades . . . will simply acquiesce to the state dismantling them. But there is no rational alternative path left.”

Pakistan has technically banned numerous such groups over the years, but it has never made a concerted effort to stop their activities — in part because of their public support and influence, and in part because they serve as a covert complement to Pakistan’s public rivalry with India.

Some militant leaders in Pakistan have been periodically arrested and charged with crimes, but in many cases they were released for lack of evidence or on technicalities. This is especially true of the largest anti-India group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and its longtime leader, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. His organization and others have often changed their names to circumvent restrictions.

Jaish-e-Muhammad has been officially banned in Pakistan since 2002, when it attempted to assassinate the country’s military president at the time, Pervez Musharraf. Since then, it has been accused of carrying out numerous terrorist attacks and bombings in Kashmir, Pakistan and elsewhere in India.

The arrests Tuesday followed an official announcement Monday that Pakistan would issue a “freezing and seizure order” in accordance with a long-standing United Nations Security Council act. The government said the order would “streamline” procedures for carrying out U.N.-mandated sanctions against “designated” individuals and groups. 

Constable reported from Kabul.