Lahore: Seven Pakistani policemen were among 13 killed and 22 others taken hostage by a notorious gang during a police raid to clear their island hideout in Punjab province, forcing the government to use aerial strikes to end the 9-day standoff.
The operation involving 1,600 security officials, including police officials and paramilitary Rangers, were engaged in a pitched battle to take control of the island on Indus river.
"At least seven policemen, mostly Elite Force commandos have been killed so far and 22 cops taken into hostages in the operation against Chotu gang in Rajanpur district, some 400 kilometers from Lahore," said Ghulam Mubashir Maken, senior police officer who is spearheading the operation codenamed 'Zarb-e-Aahan'.
Thirteen gangsters were also killed in the standoff. The Chotu gang is hiding in a forest in an island in Indus River area between Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan districts of Punjab.
Chottu, who carries a huge bounty on his head, radioed a message to the police to call off the operation, release his arrested gang members and vacate the area or else the hostages would be killed one by one.
The fierce resistance put up by criminals showed some terrorists of banned organisations might be present in the area, a police official said.
It is being suspected that elements of banned outfits of Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi (LeJ) and Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) are also part of the gang, he said.
Police commandos moved into the thickly forested hideouts of the Chottu gang in the Kacha Jamal area on Tuesday night. The heavily-armed gangsters fired indiscriminately at the advancing police party, killing six and forcing the rest to retreat.
"Yesterday, police commandos mounted another operation to recover the bodies but the gangsters put up a fierce fight and abducted 15 of the policemen," officials said.
The police has not been able to achieve any significant success so far, forcing officials to use aerial attack on the hideouts of the gangsters.
Now, the police have decided to use air power to soften the target before mounting a ground operation. The Punjab government has requested the Pakistan Army to deploy two helicopter gunships for air raids ¿ and two helipads have been set up in the Kacha Sounmiani area for this purpose, said District Police Officer Ghulam Mubashir Maikan.
Over 100 gangsters with the Chottu gang have 54 cases of murders, dacoities and kidnapping registered against it in police stations across South Punjab, Maikan said.
"As many as 150 hardened criminals have been hiding in the forest, bordering Sindh and Balochistan provinces," the official said.
"So far, we have arrested 110 facilitators of the gangsters, and soon the Kacha area will be purged of them," he claimed.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif today presided over a meeting in this regard and admonished senior police officers and bureaucracy for the "failed operation against Chotu gang".
He directed them to ensure coordination between the police, rangers and army to get success against the gangsters.