Soon after soldiers of the Pakistan Army took control of the frontlines in the Kacha Jamal area in Punjab’s Rajanpur district where Punjab Police’s Operation Zarb-e-Ahan is currently underway for the last 18 days, albeit unsuccessfully, against a gang of notorious dacoits, 40 members of the dreaded Chhotu Gang surrendered their weapons on Friday, saying they could not fight army troops “out of respect for the institution”.
On Friday, army troops backed by helicopter gunships pushed deep into the riverine area stronghold of the gang that has so far successfully fought back advances of the 2,200-strong police force comprising members of the Punjab Police and Elite Force aided by the paramilitary Rangers. The dacoits have so far killed at least seven policemen, including a station house officer, and are holding several policemen of a raiding party hostage for the past two days, resulting in suspension of the operation spearheaded by the Punjab Police chief, Mushtaq Sukhera.
The army has imposed a curfew in the area and is narrowing the cordon to flush out the gangsters armed with heavy weapons from the woodlands, which have been providing the criminals natural cover against the police operation.
Sources said that the gang has stocked several days of food and is armed with sufficient ammunition. However, they said that it was likely that Ghulam Rasool alias Chhotu and other members of the gang were also likely to surrender to the army troops amidst the mounting pressure.
According to sources, officials of Punjab Police operating in Rajanpur area had sought 25 days to smoothly implement a counter-terrorist operation against the infamous Chhotu Gang, however, the urgency imposed by the IG Punjab Police and subsequently by district police officers resulted in the losses suffered by the local police.
A local police official said that “Punjab Police had asked for 25 days to devise a strategy against Chhotu Gang”. We wanted to move forward while making bunkers and posts to save ourselves from hostile fire — for this we needed time, he maintained.
Punjab IG Mushtaq Ahmad Sukhera had said to the policemen “if no one from you is willing to go forward I will go fight myself,” said the official. It was after this that it became a matter of honour for the local police officials, he said.
The district police officers (DPOs) then summoned and deployed the force in the Indus River area between Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan on immediate basis.
The police force had initially refused to go but following the remarks made by the Punjab IG, the officers reacted in haste and ordered the force to advance from one side only rather than surrounding the gangsters from all sides, the official maintained.
The army has sent 150 soldiers to help rescue 24 policemen held hostage by the gang of heavily armed criminals after a bungled raid on their island stronghold, police said.
The police personnel deployed in the area consider the Punjab IG and DPOs responsible for the death of their fellows.
Due to lack of operational planning, the police had to suffer life losses and retreat, the official lamented.
Chhotu: From local goon to most feared gangster in South Punjab
The Chhotu Gang did not always inspire the terror it does today. Back in 2002, they were small-time offenders burgling houses without the modern weapons they own today.
Gang-leader Ghulam Rasool alias Chhotu first dabbled into the world of crime to recover some land that he had lost to local goons. For help, he approached a powerful gangster of the area, whose men recovered his land and won over Chhotu’s loyalty. Chhotu became stronger under Baba Law’s careful tutelage.
By 2004, he was listed in the proclaimed offenders list issued by the Punjab Police. The very next year he kidnapped 12 Chinese engineers from the Indus Highway.
The chief of another powerful gang which operated in South Punjab died in a police encounter. Chhotu won his gang over, and more than 300 gangsters joined Chhotu’s group. The gang, which sought refuge in the 40-kilometer dense forest area by the Indus River in Rajanpur became stronger than ever before.
In 2010, the Punjab Police launched an operation against them but failed to arrest any key gang leaders or put them in a position where they would surrender.
Chhotu meanwhile fled to Sindh, where he stayed put until 2012, before he returned to Rajanpur again.
In 2013, he attacked a police checkpost and abducted eight police officers. They were set free eight days later after the government agreed to their demands, which included safe passage and release of his family members.
In 2015, the police tried to bring the gang down in an unsuccessful operation which continued for 17 days.
Law enforcers appear to be having a tough time dealing with the gang of criminals even now, as on the 18th day of yet another operation only four gangsters have been killed, compared to seven policemen who have been killed and 24 taken hostage.
The area where they operate comprises small islands: Kacha Jamal, Kacha More and Kacha Shah Wali. The gang at the moment has secured itself in a 10-kilometre strip at Kacha Jamal.
Police and the gang are separated by a 1.5 kilometer side stream of the River Indus, which has to be covered on boats.