• PM approves fresh operation to be conducted in four phases by 300 law enforcers
• Rangers, army to be called in if needed

LAHORE: The riverine areas deep in Punjab’s south have long been infested with gangs of criminals that keep rearing their heads, despite over a dozen large-scale operations conducted by the police in Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur districts over the last 20 years, including the much-publicised one in 2016 against the Chotu gang with the help of the army.

All the operations have apparently failed to ensure the writ of the state in the kacha areas despite the combined efforts of the provincial and federal governments over the years, as another large-scale operation has been green-lighted by the prime minister following intelligence reports of gangs resurfacing in the two districts and turning them into ‘no-go areas’ once again.

Under the plan, the operation would be conducted in four phases: approach, clearance, consolidation and normalisation, while reportedly the police already kicked off the first phase late on Monday.

Separately, Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz approved, as a special case, emergency procurement of four armoured personnel carriers to provide logistic support to the police in the risky riverine areas to avoid casualties.

An official privy to the development told Dawn the operation was approved at a meeting the prime minister held during his last visit to Lahore on Sunday. The meeting was also attended by Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP) Rao Sardar Ali Khan, Additional Inspector General (South Punjab) Ehsan Sadiq, the home secretary, the DG Khan regional police officer, the district police chiefs of Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan and officers from other law enforcement agencies.

Giving a presentation, the IGP marked 5,000 square kilometres as highly risky, complicated and apparently inaccessible in both the districts that largely comprised River Indus. Several patches of the river and its banks had been beyond the control of the district and police administrations where several gangs of criminals and robbers were operating with the alleged support of elements from Sindh and Balochistan.

The Punjab Rangers and the army have been put on high alert to assist in the operation as and when required.

The official further said the IGP would supervise the entire exercise and regularly update the prime minister about the progress, while the additional IG would lead the operation. The role of local tribal leaders, the Border Military Police and facilitators of the criminals also came under discussion.

The PM was briefed that multiple operations launched since 2003 had been insufficient to ensure rule of law and governance in the riverine areas and suggested that provision of socio-economic infrastructure in the region was the solution to the never-ending problems.

The prime minister is also said to have considered a proposal to launch a joint operation by the law enforcement agencies of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan to rid the region of these criminals.

The official said the latest operation was being conducted by some 300 police personnel of the Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan districts, Elite Force and other law enforcement agencies.

In the first phase, police would set up pickets, and gain access and control of the areas. Heavy deployment of armed police personnel would be made, he said, adding officials would develop contacts with the local tribal population to assist in the arrest of facilitators. The police would also try to establish a command and control and intelligence system to check the movement of gangs in the bordering provinces supporting the criminals in kacha areas.

After a few weeks, in the next ‘clearance phase, the official said, police would work on the hideouts of the criminals, which may take another two to three weeks. The ‘consolidation’ part of the operation would be launched to develop police infrastructure, including establishment of a series of bridges on the Indus, permanent checkposts, police stations, patrolling and appointment of officers.

The police would target the 200-kilometre length alongside the Indus that had been used as a safe haven by notorious gangs in the past.

In the final ‘normalisation’ phase the government would focus on socio-economic uplift of the region. It had been decided that the Punjab government would establish hospitals, schools and roads, and also provide employment to the locals.

Deputy Inspector General (Operations) Waqas Nazir confirmed a massive and comprehensive operation had been planned to clear the kacha areas of Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur districts. He said Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in a meeting on Sunday gave a go-ahead to the provincial police to use all available resources to establish their writ in the riverine areas.

“This time, the government has devised a long-term plan aimed at addressing the decades-old factors resulting in reemergence of criminal elements in the kacha areas of these two districts even after previous operations of the police,” he said.

The DIG, who is also the spokesperson for the Punjab police, said the premier had assured of technical and logistic support to make the operation successful and bring normalcy to lives in the inaccessible areas.

Previously, it was during Mr Sharif’s tenure as the Punjab chief minister in April 2016 when the police had launched a massive ground operation, named Zarb-i-Ahan and led by the then Lahore corps commander Lt Gen Sadiq Ali, in the same kacha areas of Rajanpur district against the notorious Chotu gang. The operation was backed by the federal government as well as the Rangers, Counter-Terrorism Department and the army, which provided helicopter gunships as well.

Ghulam Rasool alias Chotu had eventually surrendered before the forces and released the two dozen policemen the gang had kidnapped.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2022

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