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By Aoun Abbas Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Military officials said Friday that they had apprehended 10 men who in 2012 attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist, and two other Pakistani schoolgirls.

A Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, said a joint operation involving the army, police, and intelligence services had arrested the entire gang involved in the attack, which the suspects said was ordered by the leader of the Pakistani Taliban militant organization, Mullah Fazlullah.

“They also admitted that if they did not get caught, they were supposed to attack at least 21 more people,” Bajwa told a news conference.

Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, quickly issued a statement calling the army’s account of the attack on the schoolgirls a “white lie.” The statement said three assailants were involved, with one of them now dead and the other two still alive. It provided no further details about those two alleged assailants.

Military officials offered few details of the operation except to say that the assailants were captured in the Malakand area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the militant-infested province where Malala — an outspoken advocate for girls’ education — was shot in the head as she was riding in a van to school in October 2012.

She was flown to Britain and underwent surgeries to reconstruct her skull and repair hearing loss.

Now 17, she has penned a bestselling memoir, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban,” won a host of international human rights awards, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and been feted in cities across the world.

Pakistani security officials said the taking of one attack suspect, Israrul Rehman, led to the arrests and confessions of the others. All the suspects were expected to be tried on terrorism charges.

Officials hailed the arrests as a breakthrough in Swat, the scenic valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhkwa where the army launched a major offensive against militants in 2009.

But residents of Swat were unconvinced, saying security has deteriorated in recent years amid a rash of targeted killings of local leaders by suspected Pakistani Taliban members.

“People in Swat would see it as a success when the culprits are brought to justice,” said Sardar Yusufzai, a leading lawyer and human rights activist in the valley who is not related to Malala. “In the past, dozens accused of target killings have been released from the courts on the basis of inadequate proof.”

Sahi is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Peter Muhly

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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