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Leading Pakistani militant placed in 'protective custody' over deadly assault on Indian air base; 25 suspects arrested

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ISLAMABAD — The leader of an outlawed Pakistani militant group has been taken into "protective custody" amid a probe as to whether he is linked to a deadly attack earlier this month on an Indian air base, two security officials and a provincial minister said Friday.

The security officials also said that Pakistan has arrested this week a total of 25 militants suspected in the Jan. 2 assault in Pathankot, close to India's border with Pakistan.

The attack, which killed seven Indian soldiers and all six attackers, sparked concerns it could derail a recently launched peace process to resolve decades-old disputes, including Kashmir.

Though Pakistan denounced the assault and promised action against all suspects linked to it, India on Thursday postponed a scheduled round of talks, which were due Friday, as it evaluated actions taken by Islamabad against Pakistan-based insurgents whom it blames for the base attack.

Indian investigators have said that phone intercepts suggest that the gunmen in the assault came from Pakistan. However, the United Jehad Council, an alliance of 13 Kashmir-based rebel groups, claimed it was behind the Pathankot attack. The group is believed to be based in Pakistan's section of Kashmir.

According to two security officials, the head of outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group, Maulana Masood Azhar, was put under custody this week.

The officials also said that the 25 arrested suspects were all members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, or Mohammed's Army. They were captured in various parts of the Punjab province, considered the seat of Azhar's group.

Pakistani officers also raided one of the seminaries belonging to Azhar in Daska, a town in Punjab, the officials said, without elaborating. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak to reporters.

Azhar's "protective custody" does not amount to an arrest. Rana Sanaullah, the minister for law in the eastern Punjab province, says Azhar is in the custody of the Counter-Terrorism Department but that so far no case against him has been registered, a requirement under Pakistani law that precedes an indictment.

Commenting on Pakistan's action on Azhar, and his group, G. Parthasarthy, India's former high commissioner to Pakistan, said that "what has happened is setting the process for custodial interrogation. It doesn't amount to presumption of guilt or arrest."

Azhar was arrested by India in 1994, after crossing into Indian-part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided between Pakistan and India but is claimed by both in its entirety.

He was freed along with two other militants as part of a demand by five hijackers behind the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines passenger plane that was taken to Kandahar, Afghanistan. All 178 passengers and 11 crew were on board were released in Afghanistan.

Two others released with Azhar were Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, an Indian Kashmiri, and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a Pakistani-born British citizen who was later convicted over his role in the abduction and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter in 2002.

In 2000, Azhar arrived from Afghanistan to Pakistan where he has stayed since. In 2002, former Pakistani President outlawed Azhar's militant group as part of the global anti-terror campaign.

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Associated Press Writer in New Delhi Ashok Sharma contributed to this story.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2000 file Maulana Masood Azhar, center, (wearing glasses and white turban),  arrives in Islamabad, Pakistan. The leader of an outlawed Pakistani militant group has been taken into "protective custody" amid a probe as to whether he is linked to a deadly attack earlier this month on an Indian air base, two security officials and a provincial minister said Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Mian Khursheed, file)
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2000 file Maulana Masood Azhar, center, (wearing glasses and white turban), arrives in Islamabad, Pakistan. The leader of an outlawed Pakistani militant group has been taken into "protective custody" amid a probe as to whether he is linked to a deadly attack earlier this month on an Indian air base, two security officials and a provincial minister said Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Mian Khursheed, file)

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2000 file Maulana Masood Azhar, center, (wearing glasses and white turban),  arrives in Islamabad, Pakistan. The leader of an outlawed Pakistani militant group has been taken into "protective custody" amid a probe as to whether he is linked to a deadly attack earlier this month on an Indian air base, two security officials and a provincial minister said Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Mian Khursheed, file)
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