Punjab (HRNW): Pakistan’s army on Saturday took over an operation to dislodge a criminal gang holding 24 hostages on its island hideout in the prosperous province of Punjab, the military’s spokesman said.The security operation involving more than 1,600 security forces is now in its 11th day and is an unprecedented use of force by the military in Punjab, which is the political power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.The head of the army’s publicity wing, General Asim Bajwa, announced that the army had been officially deployed to flush gangsters from the 10km long island in the centre of the Indus River.
“Army troops deployed. Take over charge of op,” Bajwa said in a tweet. “Cordon reinforced, Police&Rangers already in op will cont to participate under Army.”
Security forces on Saturday imposed a night-long curfew in the troubled riverine areas of Rajanpur district of south Punjab on the second day of operation launched against hardened criminals
The army-led operation, which involves the services the of 200 army troops, 300 paramilitary Rangers and 2,400 policemen, is backed by helicopters and armored vehicles.
On Friday evening, security forces resorted to shelling at the hideouts of the notorious Chotu Gang of bandits who have been operating in the area for several years. The gang last week killed seven policemen and is keeping 18 others as hostage.
Security forces have warned the gang members to either surrender or face annihilation. Already 40 gangsters have laid down arms before the troops.
Helicopter gunships were bring used to hit suspected positions and bunkers set up by the Chotu gang, a senior security official said. The initial air strikes on Friday lasted about 20 minutes. The security forces taking part in the operation, codenamed Zarb-i-Aahan, also had the backup support of mortar shells fired by Rangers.
The gang and its allies were putting up resistance and the area echoed with heavy gunfire, bomb explosions and shelling.
Gang leader Ghulam Rasool alias Chotu is allegedly involved in about a dozen cases of murder, kidnapping for ransom and other criminal acts. He has a head money of rupees two million.
On Friday, the Punjab law minister had given the gang 48 hours to surrender or “be wiped out”.
Pakistani TV stations reported early on Saturday that the head of the gang, Ghulam Rasool, also known as Chotu, a longtime criminal active in the border areas of the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, had surrendered. But the reports could not be independently confirmed and the army’s latest announcement indicated that the siege was ongoing in the afternoon.
While Pakistan’s attention has for years been focused on the Taleban and Al Qaeda threat on the Afghan border in the remote northwest, militants and criminals have quietly expanded their influence and won recruits in the country’s heartland of Punjab.
At least six police officials have been killed in the battle for the island, launched in a sweeping crackdown after a Taleban suicide bombing killed 72 people in Lahore, the provincial capital, last month.
It was unclear just how many members of the “Chotu Group”, blamed for hundreds of cases of kidnapping for ransom, murder and robbery, were trapped on the island but police said their families were believed to be accompanying them.
A police spokeswoman said seven of the gang’s leaders had been killed by police and eight injured, while six police officials had died and seven were hurt in clashes. Policemen were among the 24 hostages.
The battle is taking place near Rajanpur, one of the poorest districts in Punjab, where the Panjnad River flows into the Indus, Pakistan’s lifeline.