DERA GHAZI KHAN/LAHORE: The army has been called in to join the anti-criminal Zarb-i-Aahan operation in the riverine area of Rajanpur after Punjab police’s failure to capture members of the dreaded Chotoo gang.

The latest development came after the federal interior ministry accorded approval for launching a military operation against the hardened criminals of Rajanpur’s Rojhan tehsil on Thursday, according to a police official.

He told Dawn that an army battalion from Okara and two platoons of the Special Services Group (SSG), an independent commando regiment/corps of the army, had been called in to launch a large-scale operation.

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A strike force with paratroops from Rangers would also take part in the joint operation along with regular policemen and commandos of the force, the official said.

Four more policemen killed; bodies handed with threat to kill 24 captive cops if safe passage is not provided to leaders of Chotoo gang

He said that the initiative had been taken in the wake of reports that 24 policemen, including commandos of Elite Police, had been taken hostage by the gangsters and six others were killed during fierce battles with the outlaws.

The tug of war intensified on Thursday when the criminals killed another four policemen and handed over the bodies to the authorities with a threat to kill 24 others still in their custody.

The gangsters also handed over four injured policemen to representatives of police.

Sources said that army units had started converging on the riverine area of Rojhan Mazari to initiate a final assault against the Chotoo gang in Kacha Jamal and Kacha Moro areas.

Read: Air strikes ordered on Rajanpur gangsters

They claimed that the operation would start any time after Thursday midnight and go on until the last criminal was eliminated.

IG meets corps commander

The police official said that a meeting was convened on Thursday between the corps commander of Multan and the Inspector General of Punjab, Mushtaq Sukhera. Officials of other security agencies also attended the meeting.

He said that the huddle discussed updates on the situation and a new standard operating procedure to launch a military operation against the gangsters hiding in an island which has become the battleground.

“It will be a massive joint operation led by army.”

The official said that a strategy for the release of the ‘captive policemen’ and to eliminate notorious criminals was discussed, besides an option of airstrike through military helicopter gunships.

Punjab police spokesperson Nabila Ghazanfar said that during fresh clashes, police had achieved a major success by killing seven notorious members of the gang.

She claimed that the slain criminals included Ali Gul Bazgir, the ringleader of the Chotoo gang, Faqir Mohammad and Majeed Bakhrani.

She confirmed that six policemen had been killed and seven others suffered injuries while fighting the gangsters. Twenty-four police personnel, including elite commandos, are in the custody of the criminals.

A source in the police department said that the Chotoo gang’s ringleader was demanding safe passage for himself, his family and some loyal accomplices to proceed to Dubai in return of safe release of the captive policemen.

A video footage aired by some TV channels showed police authorities requesting the ringleader to treat their captives as guests. In return the gangsters asked them to avoid any further ‘adventure’ and threatened that otherwise they would kill the hostages.

Talking to reporters, the IG said that the operation had been launched after consultation with the military authorities and Rangers.

He rejected reports that the police force was ill-equipped and said those fighting on the frontline were wearing 10kg bulletproof jackets, protected helmets and safety shoes.

He said that the police had killed top members of the notorious gang.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, in a meeting, reportedly expressed annoyance over police failure to carry out an operation against the gang.

Annoyed at a “false” report on the operation, he asked why the operation was launched if police force was short of manpower and weaponry.

He expressed sorrow on the loss of lives of policemen and admonished the high-ups of the force for not providing backup support to the law-enforcers fighting on the frontline.

Malik Irfan adds from Rahim Yar Khan: Four injured policemen freed by the Chotoo gang were shifted to Sheikh Zayed Medical College Hospital in Rahim Yar Khan on Thursday. The policemen were identified as Aftab Ahmed, Mohammad Saifullah, Mohammad Ishaq and Tanveer Ahmed of Rajanpur Elite Force.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2016