LAHORE - After failure of police against the hardened criminals hiding in forested riverine areas of Rajanpur in southern Punjab, the army has taken charge of the operation.

The artillery fire at the positions of Chotu gang, who have dig-in in Kacha Jamal river island, has largely been ineffective so far. The army has moved in heavy weapons now and gunship helicopters have been deployed.

But airstrikes too might not prove much helpful as the criminals are using over two dozen policemen, who were held hostage during a raid on Wednesday that went badly wrong, as human shields.

Around 40 policemen in two boats raided the positions of Chotu gang but it turned out to be a disaster as the criminals killed six policemen and captured over two dozen. The gang later released four injured cops but is still holding 24 policemen

“Our number one priority is to rescue our men safely,” Punjab police chief Mushtaq Sukhera, who himself have been in the area to supervise the operation, told The Nation by phone last night.

But the handing of operation’s command to army has created worries among the families of the held police officials as they fear the army could go for heavy shelling at the dacoits’ positions without caring for the captured cops.

Relatives of the ill-fated policemen held a demonstration Saturday in Jampur, demanding their safe recovery from the criminals. Scores of them gathered at Traffic Chowk and chanted slogans against the police authorities whose ‘ineptitude’ and ‘ill-planning’ led to the causalities and captures.

The members of the Chotu gang reportedly are demanding safe passage to leave the area and halting of the operation in exchange for the hostages.

Punjab’s central police office Thursday confirmed that at least six policemen have been martyred and seven wounded since the authorities launched the operation on April 5.

An official yesterday told The Nation that military, Rangers and police were yet to launch a full-scale offensive at the river island where the notorious gang is under siege for last 20 days. Gunships are deployed and SSG commandoes are “on their toe” to strike with full force.

“The highly-trained and well-equipped commandoes of Pakistan Army will be on the frontline now. Punjab Rangers and police forces will assist them in the security operation,” an official of the Punjab government said

“But safe recovery of the abducted police commandoes is the priority of the provincial government at this moment,” the official said, seeking anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the issue.

IGP Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera yesterday visited the residences of the martyred policemen in the Rajanpur and adjoining districts, met their families, and paid rich tributes to the fallen policemen.

He expressed his displeasure over media reporting on the Chotu gang issue. He complained that the media community did not acknowledge the sacrifices of the martyred cops who were shot in their chest while fighting enemies in the border district.

“When a female pilot died during training, media paid rich tributes to the officer and covered the issue for some days. But (when the elite police commandoes are martyred) media is criticising the police department by calling our officers incompetent.”

He went on to say, “Even if the (operation) strategy was wrong, it could be debated. But as a nation, we must pay respect to our martyrs first”.

To a question about the recovery of the captured cops, the IGP said that he could not share with media any details about the operation strategy.

Former inspector general of police Sarmad Saeed Khan while speaking in Waqt News talk show “Insight with Salim Bokhari” last night said that the Chotu gang is holding hostage one police officer in each bunker”. So, what to do now, he said.

Dozens of Baloch separatists and some Sindhi nationalists, who fled military operations in recent years in both the provinces, had joined Chotu gang as last resort in recent years. The area where they are hiding is spread over around 50 kilometers and borders Balochistan and Sindh provinces.

Police and the gang are separated by a 1.5 kilometer side stream of the River Indus, which has to be covered on boats. The gangsters shoot them down as they try crossing the river, a source said. Sources said that the gang has stocked several days of food and is armed with heavy ammunition.

Over one hundred facilitators of these criminals were arrested by police before the botched ground assault by police. They are being interrogated by intelligence operatives and police investigators at unknown places. Many relatives of Chotu are among the arrested facilitators.

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

Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah Friday told reporters, “The gang will not be allowed to get away. He will be captured alive or sent to hell,” the minister said while referring to the gang leader Chotu.

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

According to a press note issued from the central police office, all police Shaheeds are our national heroes and their sacrifices will always be remembered and the department will extend its moral and financial support to the bereaved families.

The salaries of these Shaheeds will be paid to their families on regular bases. One of the child/wife will be inducted in police department besides, the educational and medical benefits will also be provided to them.

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif has already enhanced the Shaheed Fund from Rs50 to 75 lacs. This was stated by the IGP during his visits to the residences of all six martyred officials yesterday in different districts of eouthern Punjab.

He reached the residences of Shaheed sub-inspector Hanif Ghuari, Shaheed Head-Constable Muhammad Ajmal in Tehsil Jampur; and residence of Shaheed constable Aman Ullah in Tehsil Fazilpur of district Rajanpur. The IGP also visited the residences of constables Shakeel Ahmed, Muhammad Tariq and Qazi Ubaid Ullah.