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Rajanpur gangsters on defensive as army takes charge of operation

Troops receive shoot on sight orders; Chhotu sets conditions for release of abducted cops; criminals have been serving local tribal elders till recently

LAHORE/BAHAWALPUR/ DERA GHAZI KHAN: The Chhotu Gang seems to be on the defensive after the army took over the command of Operation Zarb-e-Aahan on Friday evening and launched an offensive under a new strategy.

The army gunships targeted the criminals’ hideouts on early Saturday morning but no further action was reported since then. Also, the Chhotu Gang did not offer any resistance to the troops.

The safe recovery of the policemen who were taken hostage is seemingly a priority for the army commandoes. Also, the army wants to capture Chhotu rather than eliminate him in order to interrogate him.

ISPR DG Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa said the army had taken over charge of the operation, adding that police and Rangers would continue to participate in the operation under the army.

In his official tweet, Lt-Gen Bajwa said the army troops had been deployed and the cordon reinforced around the area. All the required resources would be employed to accomplish the mission, he said, adding that updates about the operation would be shared regularly.

Sources privy to the latest developments told The News that the police had been completely withdrawn from the operation due to the massive casualties and flawed operational strategies. They added that control of pickets and bunkers had also been taken by the army personnel.

The army men have received shoot on sight orders, adopting zero tolerance for criminals.

The security forces have also claimed arresting several criminals on Saturday. To a question about the hostages, a senior officer said the security forces understood the dynamics of the ground situation and they would use gunships accordingly to avert collateral damage. He added, however, the safe recovery of hostages would be a top priority.

To another query, he said commando action would be launched with aerial support to eliminate the gang. The army would prefer to arrest or eliminate criminals, including Ghulam Rasool alias Chhotu, instead of negotiating with them due to the huge loss suffered by the police.

Meanwhile, Chhotu, talking to The News, said he had relocated the 22 hostage policemen to bunkers so that they could become the prime target of the shelling by the forces. Chhotu said he had also forced two injured policemen to stand at the bunkers.

To a question, he said the police had picked up his family members. On the one hand, Chhotu stated that he would not surrender before the army while on the other, he said if the government wanted to save the kidnapped policemen and end the operation then they should publicly forgive him, besides giving assurance that he would not be killed.

Chhotu asked Punjab Assembly Deputy Speaker Sher Ali Khan Gorchani and MPA Atif Mazari to come forward for negotiations with him as they used to do so in the past.

Earlier on Saturday, some rumours suggested that the gangsters were using the hostages as human shields and were wearing their uniforms but this was not confirmed by any independent source because differentiating the criminals and the hostages was not possible in this case.

It is learnt that the top police bosses were not in favour of the police-led operation against the Chhotu Gang, while the reports of the Special Branch also suggested the same.

But Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Law Minister Rana Sanaullah  forced Punjab IGP Mushtaq Sukhera to initiate the operation.

The apparent motive behind this approach was that the chief minister wanted to keep the army away from Punjab for certain reasons.

It is alleged that three provincial assembly members of the ruling party are involved in the criminal activities of the Chhotu Gang.

It is also being claimed that the local facilitators of these gangsters, including some belonging to the PML N, want to see the entire Chhotu Gang eliminated to save themselves from being investigated.

But a top police official, on the condition of not being being named, told The News that their main target was to capture Chhotu alive for onward interrogation so as to expose the political figures backing him.

It is worth noting that equipped with sophisticated weapons, the Chhotu Gang has been serving various tribal dignitaries till the recent past, as even the local police were not allowed to restrict his movement in the area from Rajanpur to Kashmore.

The tribal chiefs and feudals of the semi-tribal district of Rajanpur have been enjoying the perks and privileges under various governments but they now fear that they may face a tough time.

Due to the location of Rajanpur, the dacoits easily flee to Balochistan or Sindh after committing crimes, particularly kidnapping for ransom, in various areas of Punjab.

A couple of years ago, the Indus Highway from Rojhan Mazari (the native town of former interim prime minister Mir Balakh Sher Mazari) to Kashmore (the northernmost district of Sindh) was not considered safe for travelling. Incidents of robberies and kidnapping were common even in daylight.  However, there has been a marked decrease in these crimes with the passage of time.

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