By Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces have killed a senior al Qaeda commander and 13 other militants this week in raids aimed at weeding violent Islamists out of the heartland province of Punjab, security officials said on Friday.
The two raids in the south of Punjab were part of a sweeping operation that authorities launched after a suicide bomber killed 72 people and wounded hundreds in Punjab's provincial capital of Lahore on Easter Sunday.
For years militants have held sway in remote northwestern regions on the Afghan border but some have also established networks in Punjab, Pakistan's richest and most populous province and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's power base.
The Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD), which carried out the sweeps with intelligence agencies, identified the al Qaeda commander as Tayyab Nawaz, and said he was killed on Thursday with seven other al Qaeda militants in the city of Multan.
Six al Qaeda operatives were killed a day earlier in the Muzaffargarh district of Punjab, the department said.
One department official said the eight men killed in Multan had been planning an attack on a university, similar to one in January in which 20 people were killed.
The army launched a sustained offensive against militants along the Afghan border in 2014, and the new sweep in Punjab has raised hopes that authorities are at last serious in tackling all militants, even the ones security agencies have in the past seen as useful assets to be used against old rival India.
Police in Punjab have rounded up thousands of militant suspects since the Easter bombing in Lahore.
Before that attack, Sharif's ruling party had opposed militarised operations against militants in Punjab.
Analysts say al Qaeda's presence and ability to stage attacks in Pakistan has been greatly reduced since 2001, when the United States launched a global campaign against the group following the Sept. 11 attacks.
(Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Robert Birsel)