The Punjab Police and a group of bandits have ceased fire and started negotiations for the release of nine police hostages in the kacha area of Rajanpur district in southern Punjab, The Express Tribune has learnt.
More than 50 bandits stormed 22 police pickets on the three Indus islands Kacha Karachi, Kachi Jamal and Baggiani – on Saturday, reclaiming an area that had been notorious as a lawless haven for kidnappers and dacoits.
The police rejected the initial demands made by Ghulam Rasool Mazari, better known as Chotu Mazari, the leader of the bandits, that three of his allies – believed to be Lashkar-i-Jhangvi facilitators arrested a few months ago be released, and all 22 pickets in the area be abolished, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
Local tribal leader Ahmad Khan Khird was later sent to the island where the Choto Mazari-led bandits are holed up with an offer from the police to release the hostages and leave the islands in exchange for safe passage and the release of 24 family members picked up by the police following the onset of violence on Sunday. The sources said that Khird had been warned that should the negotiations fail or the police hostages be harmed, he would be killed.
The two sides ceased fire while the talks were ongoing. Police from DG Khan and Bahawalpur divisions had cordoned off the kacha area. Meanwhile, SP Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, who is one of the leaders of the police operation, has been made acting district police officer of Rajanpur.
Speaking to a television channel, DG Khan Regional Police Officer Akhtar Hayat Laleka said that the first objective of the operation was to secure the hostages, after which they would decide what to do to clear the islands of the bandits.
Khird is an influential local tribesman who himself heads a criminal gang and is allied with Chotu Mazari’s group, said the sources. In 2011, he also acted as a mediator between the police and dacoits when a massive security operation was launched in the kacha area, negotiating safe passage for the dacoits towards the Koh-i-Suleman range and the adjoining districts of Dera Bugti, Kashmore and Ghotki. Among them was the Chotu Mazari group, with family members, cattle and luggage train in tow.
The bandits had returned to the Rajanpur kacha area, the sources said, for a couple of reasons. First, because of fighting between the Bugti and Mazari tribes near Kashmore; and second, because they were forced out of the Koh-i-Suleman range by hill torrents and by the Punjab Rangers guarding hunting and lodging grounds prized by royal Arab families.
In statements to the media, Chotu Mazari has repeatedly demanded that the police pickets in the kacha area be removed so he and his people can settle there, and that his three companions arrested a few months ago be released.
The Rahim Yar Khan DPO had arrested them from Bahawalpur district. According to police sources, the three dacoits, apart from their usual activities, had served as facilitators for the banned militant outfits Sipah-i-Sahaba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, arranging safe houses and doing other favours for them. After interrogating them, the police arrested several other LJ members from RY Khan and Bahawalpur.
Police officials said that they would not allow the bandits and their families to settle in the kacha area, in view of how they had set up safe havens for kidnappers and dacoits there in the past.
Senior police officials were critical of the quality of personnel manning the 22 pickets on the Indus islands. The pickets were set up after the clean-up operation of 2011. The 90 police officials deployed there were retired soldiers recruited under a special programme of the Punjab government.
In the absence of checks, said the police sources, the personnel were usually absent from duty at the pickets, so much so that only nine were at their posts when the bandits attacked on Saturday.
“When the RPO called the rest and instructed them to get back on duty and fight the dacoits, they refused. They said that they could polish boots or provide other services, but they could not fight,” said a police official.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2013.