LAHORE: Pakistani counter-terrorism forces killed the new leader of the banned sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group, along with three more militants, in an operation in the eastern province of Punjab, authorities said yesterday. The killings come 18 months after police gunned down longtime Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) leader Malik Ishaq in a separate encounter. Among the four militants killed on Tuesday night was Asif Chotoo, also known by the name Rizwan, who was named LeJ chief after Ishaq's death, authorities said. "He was now heading Lashkar-e-Jhangvi," the Counter Terrorism Department of Punjab said in a statement.

The extremist Sunni Muslim LeJ, one of a myriad of Islamist militant outfits operating in Pakistan, has claimed responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of civilians, mostly minority Shi'ite Muslims. The four suspects were killed in a shootout in Sheikhupura city, about 40 km northwest of the Punjab capital of Lahore, by counter-terrorism forces acting on a tip that the group was planning an attack in Lahore. "Big chapters of terrorism, target killings have been closed today," the statement added. "These terrorists were merciless killing machines."--Reuters