ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's army said Friday that it has arrested 10 militants suspected of involvement in the 2012 attack on teenage activist Malala Yousafzai, who won world acclaim after she was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating gender equality and education for women.
Army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said the detained men attacked Yousafzai, then 15, on orders from Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. The army is currently waging a major offensive against the extremist group in North Waziristan, a tribal region along the border with Afghanistan that has long been a militant stronghold.
"The entire gang involved in the murder attempt... has been busted," Bajwa said, adding that the "terrorists" were part of Tehrik-e-Taliban, an umbrella group encompassing militant organizations across the tribal areas.
Malala, a precocious teenage activist who had called for expanding girls' education in deeply conservative areas of Pakistan, was shot in the head in October 2012 while returning from school. Two other girls were also wounded in the attack.
Malala was initially treated in Pakistan, but was later flown to a hospital in Britain, where she now lives with her family.
"This is good news for our family and most importantly, for the people of Pakistan and the civilized world. This first step of apprehending Malala's attackers signifies the beginning of real hope for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been affected by terrorism," Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, said in a statement.
Malala is from the northwestern Swat Valley, once home to Fazlullah, who was elevated to his current leadership position after his predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan.
Fazlullah has been on the run since 2009, when Pakistan launched a major offensive in the Swat Valley to eliminate militants who were trying to overthrow the government and impose a harsh version of Islamic law. Islamic extremists believe women should largely confine themselves to the home, and view girls' education as a sinister Western import.
Pakistan believes Fazlullah is hiding in Afghanistan, and Bajwa said Islamabad had raised the issue with the Afghan government. Both countries have long accused each other of ignoring militants who launch cross-border attacks from their territory.
"We will continue our efforts until (Fazlullah) is arrested or killed," Bajwa told a televised news conference in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
He did not say when or where the men were captured, but said security agencies detained all 10 in a coordinated operation acting on information from one of the members of the cell. He said the head of the cell had also been arrested.
"The group acted upon the instructions of Mullah Fazlullah who, while based in Kunar, Afghanistan, passed instructions through his two associates," he said. He added that it was a "known fact" that Fazlullah and other "terrorists" are hiding in Afghanistan.
The arrests come at a time when Pakistan's military is carrying out a major operation against militants in North Waziristan. Pakistan launched the June 15 operation after militants attacked one of the country's busiest airports, in the southern city of Karachi, shocking the nation.
The military says it has so far killed at least 975 militants and that the operation is progressing as planned.
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.