LAHORE - Gang leader Ghulam Rasool Chotu, the most-wanted criminal to the provincial police, is in “no mood to surrender” as gunship helicopters strafed an island river in the Rajanpur district yesterday.

“Mortar shells are being fired from both the sides with no confirmation about the 24 police commandoes (the gang holding hostage alongside the Indus River),” a top police officer told The Nation last night.

The officer while requesting anonymity said that the “safety of the abducted police officers” is the top priority of the law-enforcement agencies engaged in the joint operation codenamed as Zarb-e-Ahan.

The officer also denied media reports that some 40 members of the criminal gang, being dubbed in the local media as Chotu gang , had laid down arms.

“They are putting up stiff resistance. They are carrying anti-aircraft guns,” a police officer who is engaged in the largest security operation told this reporter by phone from the insurgency-hit river island.

Hundreds of Army commandoes yesterday joined the police and paramilitary troops in the Southern Punjab with media reports suggesting heavy shelling on the camps and bases of Chotu gang .

No casualties were reported yesterday from both the sides. Punjab’s Central Police Office on Thursday confirmed that at least six policemen were martyred and seven were injured since the authorities launched the operation on April 5.

According to police, at least seven key members of Chotu gang have been killed in this operation. A young man shot and killed by police commandoes early Thursday is said to be a close relative of Chotu.

A former police officer hinted there could be some “political issue” behind the scene. He said that the “militants” should be engaged in dialogue by local politicians.

According to sources, dozens of Baloch separatists and some Sindhi nationalists, who fled military operations in recent years in both the provinces, had joined Chotu gang as a last resort. The river island spread over 50 kilometres area borders Balochistan and Sindh provinces.

Some migrated to this island with families and some individuals reached the riverine area, known as a “no-go area” for the police.

The security and law-enforcement agencies are surprised since the criminals are using heavy weapons against the security establishment.

Police investigators state they believe some anti-Pakistan elements are feeding weapons to the tribesmen.

A provincial govt official denied any talks or dialogue with the criminals.

Rana Sanaullah

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah yesterday told reporters, “The gang leader will not be allowed to get away. He will be captured alive or sent to hell,” he said while referring to the gang leader.

Political and military leadership agree that there will be no talks with these criminals. They will either have to surrender or be eliminated within the coming 24 to 48 hours, Sanaullah said.

Over 100 facilitators of these criminals were arrested by police last week. They are being interrogated by intelligence operatives and police investigators at unknown places.

A police source told The Nation that many relatives of Chotu are among the arrested facilitators.

Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops early this month launched a large-scale offensive to target criminals and militants hiding alongside the riverine-belt, bordering Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Apart from 1600 police, at least 300 Elite Police Force commandoes, and dozens of personnel of the counter-terrorism department are taking part in the joint security operation, underway in the Kacha area.

The region which is spread over 50 kilometres area on the edge of the Punjab province was a “no-go area” for the police for many years.

The fierce fighting is taking place near Rajanpur, one of the poorest districts in Punjab, which is the political power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Curfew has also been imposed in four kilometer area.

The Zarb-e-Ahan operation is the fifth attempt by the provincial police to clear the river island from gang leaders in the last 10 years.