Rajanpur - At least seven policemen including an officer were killed and 24 taken hostage by Chotu Gang on Wednesday in the riverine area of southern Punjab where law enforcement agencies are conducting a massive operation against criminals and terrorists.

As many as 1,600 police personnel from seven districts of the province are participating in operation named Zarb-e-Ahan which was launched more than two weeks ago in Kacha area of Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan districts along Indus River.

The terrain is difficult and the gang of outlaws is heavily armed. The difficulties being faced by the law enforcers can be gauged from the fact no member of this gang has so far been apprehended, though police have claimed killing some outlaws, a couple of them being high-profile.

A police party came under attack by the bandits as they entered the island-like Kachi Jamal area in Rajanpur district of Punjab in two boats. Kachi Jamal borders Dera Bugti in Balochistan and is believed to be a bastion of Chotu Gang .

Police sources said that the 39-member police party was surrounded by around 100 dacoits who opened heavy fire at them. As many as seven police officials, including an SHO were killed and eight got injured in the fight. The rest of them, 24 cops – who included a DSP – were taken hostage by the gang.

Rahim Yar Khan District Police Officer Zeeshan Asghar said a boat operator, Ijaz Meetla was also injured in the exchange of fire. He said that police got some success as a main dacoit leader, Pehlwan Sikhani, and one of his close companions were killed in the firefight.

The bodies and injured police officials were taken to Sheikh Zayed Medical College Hospital (SZMCH). He also mentioned official telephone contact numbers for blood donars. Punjab IGP Mushtaq Sukhera visited the injured at the hospital.

A hospital source told The Nation that more than 6 injured policemen were brought to the emergency and out of them Haq Nawaz and Saeed were operated upon because bullets had damaged their legs. PRO of district police, Arshad Nawaz delivered a message that a camp has been established outside SZMCH emergency for blood donation and he appealed the public to donate blood for the policemen.

It was unclear if all the policemen who could not make it out from the fight zone were alive or not. According to sources said that the Choto Gang is demanding police to leave the area on the police wireless sets they have snatched from the captive cops. Police on the other hand is making plans to get their men released from the criminals safely.

Sources said that the police is fighting on the frontline while paramilitary Rangers, who were called up for help in the massive operation in the southern Punjab areas, are firing mortar shells on the positions of the criminals.

Using the forest cover and inaccessibility of the reverine area, a number of gangs – Chotu Bakhrani, Saltu Shar and Lathani gangs being most notorious of them – have been engaged in kidnapping for ransom and other crimes in the Kacha area of Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur.

According to some police sources these gangs also had support of some politicians and feudal lords of the area while even black sheep in the police department have also been helping them for years for monetary benefits. A number of police operations in the past badly failed because the criminals were tipped off by the corrupt police officials.

According to some locals, police always start operation against dacoits in April when wheat harvest is in full bloom. They said they cultivate wheat on hundreds of acres of river bed and police operations not only make it difficult for them to get the grain but it also takes wheat worth millions of rupees from them. Police strongly denied the allegation.

This is first time that an IG of police himself is present in the area of operation to oversee it.

Social circles in Rajanpur city believe that police could not get much success against dacoits and only an army operation can eliminate them. They said that in the past DPO Sohail Tajik started “Operation Tauba” and claimed success, declaring that there was no “no-go area” in Punjab. They dacoits are not caught or killed, they simply move from one area to another when police launches operation, they said.

The area of Kacha is very vast and the criminals are living there for many years. Due to crops, trees and the river, they definitely have advantage over the police, IGP Mushtaq Sukhera told media after funeral of elite force Shaheed constable Qazi Ubaid Ullah here yesterday.

But he said the moral of police is high and this time the area would be completely cleared of the criminals. He said that around 100 constables of elite force voluntarily offered their services for this operation and he was proud of them.