Rajanpur/ISLAMABAD - An armed gang that held 24 policemen hostage on an Indus River island has surrendered, army spokesman said on Wednesday, ending a gripping two-week standoff that has embarrassed the country's police.

The operation with more than 2,000 police and paramilitary forces stumbled early on after at least six police officials were killed and two dozen officers kidnapped in an initial bid to take back the island in the southern part of Punjab province.

"Chotu with his 13 gang members surrendered unconditionally," army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said on Twitter, referring to gang leader Ghulam Rasool, also known as Chotu. He added that all 24 hostage policemen were rescued safely.

Later in a televised message, Gen Bajwa stated that the armed forces have also safely recovered 72 kin of the bandit gang including 24 women, 44 children and four elderly men. "They all are in the custody of the Army and are being taken care of accordingly," he said.

The gang had been using these women and children as human shields – complicating efforts to retake the 10-km (six-mile) long island near Rajanpur, one of the poorest districts in Punjab.

ISPR DG said that the operation in the island which had been a "No Go Area" will continue till purging of all the criminals and anti-state elements. "Operation will continue till the elimination of each one of the bandit on the island," he said.

The army took control of the fight against the so-called "Chotu Gang" on April 16 after a slew of embarrassing headlines for police in local newspapers. The battle to dislodge the gang was launched as part of a sweeping crackdown on lawlessness in Punjab after a Taliban suicide bombing killed 72 people in Lahore, the provincial capital, last month.

On Tuesday, the army deployed troops, artillery and helicopter gunships in an unprecedented use of force by the military in Punjab, the political power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The Chotu gang is blamed for hundreds of cases of kidnapping for ransom, murder and robbery. The leader of gang, 40 years old Ghulam Rasool alias Chotu, himself is wanted in 49 cases with a head money of two million rupees.

The gang has been having links with the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other banned outfits including Baloch Liberation Army (BLF). It had survived at least seven police operations in the past and had built bunkers for the current standoff, sources said.

Sources said that final warning was issued to Chotu gang by the armed forces on Tuesday. Army helicopters dropped pamphlets warning the suspects to lay down arms and surrender. To catch the Chotu gang, soldiers blocked the entry and exit points of the area which continued throughout the day and night.

The district government had imposed Section 144 and declared curfew in about 20 villages in the area including Kacha Shah Wali, Kacha, Soon Miyani, Kacha Jamal and Kacha Moro. The armed felons abandoned their posts and ran into the jungle during the operation but troops followed them and forced them to surrender.

The security forces were in power to inflict serious damage on the suspects but smelling the situation, Chotu along with his 13 companions surrendered to the soldiers and released the hostages.

ISPR DG said that authorities have started formal interrogation of Chotu. Gen Bajwa in a firm tone also said that all the “No-Go Areas” across the country will be cleared and no terrorist or criminal will be spared.

He said that Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif had instructed the operation commander that there should have been no loss of life during the operation and the operational force made every effort to comply with the instructions. He said the COAS has felicitated and appreciated the role of operation commander of Pakistan army who along with the contingent of Rangers carried out successful operation against the gang of bandits.

Sikandar Haider/agencies