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April 16, 2016

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Army action begins, choppers strike Chhotu Gang

Group stated to be linked with banned outfit; gang chief’s son picked up; Shahbaz vows to eliminate criminals; lauds police bravery; announces compensation for heirs of martyred cops

BAHAWALPUR/MULTAN/LAHORE: The Chhotu Gang’s days appear numbered as the army eventually launched an operation against the gang on Friday.

The army launched air strikes on the Chhotu Gang hideouts in Kacha Jamal, Kachi Mooroo and Kachi Jakharani. Reports suggest that 34 police posts have so far been reclaimed, while a 6pm to 6am curfew was also imposed on the area.

The move came as three Cobra helicopters, in addition to the two gunships already being used, joined the operation. An air ambulance is also there to assist the troops to deal with any situation.

Earlier, troops from the Multan Corps moved to Rojhan on the 19th day of the operation codenamed Zarb-e-Aahan while gunship helicopters were providing cover to them.Sources said the notorious Chhotu Gang had deep links with outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and both the groups were providing shelter to each other. It was also learnt that the Chhotu Gang faced a split in its ranks as some gangsters involved in minor crimes wanted to surrender.

Sources told The News that a major commando operation was expected on Friday night.An infantry battalion has been moved from Multan, while SSG’s Zarar Company is also taking part in the operation in the riverine area located across Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur districts. The commandoes have been tasked with rescuing the 18 policemen held hostage by the Chhotu Gang and ensuring the safety of civilians.

Seven companies of the Punjab Rangers have also been deployed in Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur, with authorities likely to go for the final push against the gang, security sources said.

In another development, the personnel of a sensitive agency took the son of Chhotu dacoit into custody to use him for negotiating the release of the abducted policemen.According to sources in the Punjab Police, Chhotu’s son is studying at a college in Murree. The law enforcers phoned Chhotu through his son and demanded the release of the hostages. Chhotu’s son pleaded his father not to hurt any of the policemen.

A senior police officer said it depends upon how seriously Chhotu takes the phone call of his son. However, he said, the law enforcement agencies were utilising all possible sources to get the policemen freed.

Meanwhile, provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah expressed his annoyance over the flawed operation as Bahawalpur RPO Dr Ehsan Sadiq briefed him via video link.Sources said the RPO was appointed as the focal person but he failed to disseminate information to the media properly and timely.

It was also learnt that RPO DG Khan Rehmatullah Khan Niazi had asked Dr Ehsan to allow the forces to move from DG Khan as they were well prepared to fight the criminals. However, he insisted that the police should attack from the Rahim Yar Khan side, which resulted in the loss of 10 precious lives.

The sources further claimed that the death toll of policemen was higher but the police were hiding the figures to keep the morale of policemen, participating in the operation, high.No security official could confirm the presence or absence of the gang chief, Ghulam Rasool Bakhrani alias Chhotu; however, they confirmed the presence of gang members in the Kacha Karachi area across the River Indus.

Kacha Karachi is located in the middle of the river, surrounded by thick jungle sprawling over miles. Small villages are also established there and the gangsters were hiding in the population, making the locals hostages. The River Indus turns 20 miles ahead from Kacha Karachi and arrives at the Guddu Barrage.

Natives told The News that the Chhotu Gang had captured a 60-kilometre-long and 20-kilometre-wide strip in the middle of the river that contains Kacha Hyderabad located towards the Guddu Barrage, Kacha Karachi towards Rajanpur and Kachi Jamal towards Rojhan.

This strip is like a small hill surrounded by the River Indus and even heavy flood cannot submerge it. There are 500-700 houses in Kacha Hyderabad, Kacha Karachi and Kachi Jamal. The hideouts of the Chhotu Gang are located in the middle of the population, reportedly having light, medium and heavy anti-aircraft guns.

The Chhotu Gang also ‘rules’ a 60-kilometre-long strip in Sindh, which starts from Rojhan in Punjab and spreads across Sindh from Ghotki to Sukkur. Four police stations – Shahwali, Bangla Achha, Rojhan and Goth Mazari – cover the 60-kilometre-long strip across the River Indus in Punjab.

The decision to move the troops was taken after a meeting attended by Multan Corps Commander Lt-Gen Ashfaq Nadeem, Punjab IGP Mushtaq Sukhera, home secretary and other civil and military officials.

Police sought the army’s help soon after the killing of seven policemen in a gunfight with the Chhotu Gang two days earlier. The gangsters have 18 police hostages.

Security sources say the Chhotu Gang is closely associated with the LeJ. In 2013, it had kidnapped eight policemen and demanded the release of four high-profile LeJ operatives – Bashir Bakhrani, Ishaq Changwani, Razzaq Changwani and Qaiser Kirtawani. They were released after a high-level intervention in exchange for thekidnapped policemen. At that time, the Basti Malok police in Multan interrogated them and later handed them over to the then Rahim Yar Khan DPO for further action.

The then Basti Malok SHO Tahir Majid has been promoted as DSP and is now serving in Mian Channu. Talking to The News, he said he had only interrogated them but they were actually kept in Bahawalpur police custody. He said he had no knowledge of the release of the four accused in exchange for eight policemen.

Tahir also said he was not clear if the four accused belonged to the LeJ or not.Kirtawani had been active in the Muzaffaragarh district and was involved a number of kidnappings for ransom.

Bashir Bakhrani had been active in the Bahawalpur district and was involved in distributing money among the Jaish-e-Muhammad members.When contacted for updates on the army-led operation against the Chhotu Gang, the ISPR officials refused to share any information because of the sensitivity of matter.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif said the sacrifices of police officials martyred in the operation would not go waste, adding that the courage and bravery displayed by the police force was highly commendable. He said criminal elements would be rooted out from the area. He also announced financial assistance of Rs5 million for the heirs of each martyred policeman and Rs2.5 million for purchase of houses. The package also includes job for one member of the family, free medical and educational facilities and full salary to the heirs till the completion of service of the martyred officials.

 

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