Pakistan's army said Friday that it has arrested 10 people suspected of involvement in the 2012 shooting of teenage education activist and gender equality campaigner Malala Yousafzai.
Army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said the detained men attacked Malala, then 15-years-old, 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 stronghold for the armed group.
"The entire gang involved in the murder attempt... has been busted," Bajwa said, adding that they were part of Tehrik-e-Taliban, an umbrella group encompassing armed organizations across the tribal areas.
Malala, an 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. She has since become a symbol of defiance in the fight against armed groups operating in Pashtun tribal areas in northwest Pakistan.
Malala was initially treated in Pakistan, but was later flown to a hospital in Britain, where she now lives with her family. She is unable to return to her homeland because of Taliban threats to kill her and her family members.
"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 fighters who were trying to overthrow the government and impose a harsh version of Shariah law. 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 armed groups 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 in North Waziristan. Pakistan launched the operation on June 15 after fighters attacked one of the country's busiest airports, in the southern city of Karachi.
The military says it has so far killed at least 975 fighters.