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Footprints: Fortress for criminals

Updated May 15, 2016

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THE outer wall of the Bangla Ichha police station in a village in Rojhan, Rajanpur district, bears a banner featuring six policemen who were killed on April 13 during a police operation against Chhotoo gang criminals.—Photo by writer
THE outer wall of the Bangla Ichha police station in a village in Rojhan, Rajanpur district, bears a banner featuring six policemen who were killed on April 13 during a police operation against Chhotoo gang criminals.—Photo by writer

THE outer wall of the police station in Bangla Ichha — a sparsely populated, sleepy village of Rojhan, the smallest of the three tehsils of Rajanpur district straddling the mighty River Indus and bordering Sindh and Balochistan — bears a banner featuring six dead policemen.

The policemen were killed on April 13 during a police operation against criminal gangs, the most notorious one headed by Ghulam Rasool Mazari alias Chhotoo, who was hiding on Katchi Jamali, a large island on the river. Their colleagues find it impossible to reconcile with these deaths, which they consider unnecessary.

Of the 42 men sent out in three motorboats to retake control of Katchi Jamali, only 12 came back: their motorboat couldn’t land. Some two dozen policemen were taken hostage by gangsters following a brief but heavy shootout shortly after they landed.

The operation, which reportedly took four whole months of planning, had to be aborted and the army was called in for help the next morning. What happened at the island or with the gangsters and their families between the day the army took command of the operation and the day Chhotoo surrendered along with his 12 fighters is being kept a closely guarded secret by the military authorities. The island has since been under the control of the Rangers.

Some reports suggest that many of the gangsters who refused to surrender were taken out. But these reports are hard to confirm as the military remains tight-lipped.

The island lying west of Bangla and comprising about 48 square kilometres has been used by notorious criminals as their sanctuary for the past 40 years. It was a perfect hideout, difficult to access and with thick vegetation on all sides. Yet it is not the only hideout in the area serving notorious criminals from south Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. The riverine belt of Rajanpur has many other inaccessible places where fugitives — many of whom, like Chhotoo, enjoy the patronage of powerful local politicians and tribal leaders — can hide easily.

In the past, several police initiatives against the Chhotoo gang and others failed. Many policemen lost their lives and several had to spend weeks and months in captivity before their release was secured — often through influential local politicians and Mazari tribe elders. The price paid was the suspension of police action. The Bangla police have lost 13 men in such raids by the Chhotoo gang on pickets since 2003.

“All the odds were against us from the very beginning,” said one Bangla police official who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. “We knew about the outcome from the outset.”

Another Bangla police official contended: “Katchi Jamali is more than one kilometre from the riverbank on its east. Thick vegetation lines its banks and gangsters have created concrete trenches. On top of that they have acquired and trained themselves in using heavy anti-aircraft guns that we can only dreamt of ever touching. It was foolish to expect the police to immobilise them.”

“Didn’t they [senior police officers] know about the bunkers and the heavy weapons the outlaws had acquired?” said one of the four injured policemen captured by the gangsters but returned the next morning for medical treatment. “Our motorboats were exposed to heavy fire. We kept our superiors updated but we were ordered to land on the island come what may.” His was the first of the two boats carrying 15 men to reach the island. “We were surrounded by enemy fire from every side. We fought as long as we could, but when we ran out of ammunition and saw our men falling, we surrendered. What other option did we have?”

The Bangla police have 11 FIRs of murder and terrorism registered against Chhotoo since 2003 and these form only a fraction of the cases against him and his gang for heinous crimes.

“The riverine belt is difficult terrain for a police operation against well-armed criminals living in fortified islands,” said Bangla SHO Malik Talib Hussain. “The police forced Chhotoo to flee the islands in April 2011, but he recaptured Katchi Jamali in 2013. We have not been able to enter the island for the past one and a half years.”

The Rajanpur police are totally unaware of the events that followed the mobilisation of the army. “What we know is that 13 criminals including Chhotoo surrendered along with 27 women, 44 children and four elderly men. What happened to the rest of his fighters — estimated as numbering between 60 and 200 — is known only to the military authorities,” said the SHO.

A narrow winding road passing through sugar cane fields and mango orchards leads to Thath, another small village some 35km from Bangla and much closer to the eastern bank of the Indus facing Katchi Jamali. The Rangers have set up camp here since Chhotoo surrendered on April 20, a week after the failed police operation.

“We cannot talk to you or provide a boat unless you show us written permission from the ISPR,” said a Rangers officer. “No one, including the police, is allowed here or on the island except our force.”

Most Rajanpur police officials privately admit that the policemen sent to recapture the island were ill-trained and ill-equipped. “It was a kind of blind bet; our success hinged on luck,” argued a police official in Shahwali, the native village of Chhotoo. “Even the army had to use heavy shelling and gas bombs for a few days to soften the target and sent troops on the island only after Chhotoo agreed to surrender after mediation by former army officer Tariq Mahmood Mazari and politician Sher Ali Mazari.”

However, a senior police official claimed that for the first time in many years, the police were able to take out four notorious criminals, including Pehalwan Sukhani and Ali Gulbaz, during an operation in the riverine belt. But he indirectly acknowledged flawed planning: “If we had had the kind of backup we were promised, including gunship helicopters, we would have achieved our target,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2016