LAHORE: A group of bandits holding eight police personnel and three civilians hostage fled the kacha area of Rajanpur district overnight after negotiations with the police and political representatives broke down.
On Tuesday night, PML-N MPA Sardar Atif Khan Mazari and Rahim Yar Khan District Police Officer (DPO) Sohail Zafar Chattha negotiated with Chotu Mazari, the leader of a group of around 60 bandits, for some five hours, according to sources.
Chotu Mazari was willing to give up all 11 hostages in exchange for the release of three Lashkar-i-Jhangvi members arrested two months ago, but the police refused to release more than two of them. The 11 hostages included eight policemen captured when the bandits overran three islands in the kacha area on Saturday, and three civilians kidnapped for ransom four months ago from Rahim Yar Khan – Dr Wazir Khan, his son and his driver.
Once the negotiations failed, the bandits escaped the area with ease. Earlier talk among police officials that the bandits were seeking safe passage appeared to have been a red herring, as they proved to know more about the terrain than the police.
Atif Mazari, speaking to The Express Tribune, blamed the police for the failure of the talks, saying Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had ordered them to ensure the safe release of the hostages through negotiations. “The police high-ups, including the RPO and IGP who were in touch during the negotiations, should have accepted their demands,” he said.
“I don’t know why they refused to release one person while they were going to release all 11 hostages, including a doctor and his son who have been away from their family for months,” he said.
Mazari said that he and DPO Chattha had travelled for three hours by launch boat in order to reach Kacha Jamal island and negotiate with Chotu Mazari. He said that after the breakdown of talks, he and Chattha headed back. Meanwhile, he said, the bandits quietly left. “Their cell phones are switched off,” he said.
If the bandits reached Dera Bugti, he said, they could cause more problems for the police. He said that the Indus River was in flood so no police operation was possible. He said that the bandits fled the area for fear that more local people gathering at the scene and the heavy police deployment would make their escape more difficult.
Mazari said that he had sent dozens of his tribesmen to seek out the bandits and try to get the hostages released.
About the 24 family members held by the police whose release had been touted as leverage in the negotiations, Mazari said that the bandit leader had not given them much value in the bargaining.
DG Khan RPO Umar Akhtar Hayat Laleka told The Express Tribune that two divisions had been deployed to block the exit routes from the islands. “They have disappeared mysteriously,” he said. He added that the police had “recaptured” the islands and deployed 40 police personnel at pickets on Kachi Jamal.
Former RY Khan DPO Khan Sohail Habib Tajik, who was operational commander for a 2011 action clearing the islands of the bandits, said that Chotu Mazari was a member of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and had been trained in Afghanistan. He said that he had tried to arrest him a few months ago when police discovered that the bandit leader owned some land in Jhelum, but he had escaped. Three of his companions were arrested in the raid. These were the men he had sought released from police custody in the negotiations, he said. He believed that Chotu Mazari had returned to the islands with the aim of capturing hostages and using them to negotiate the release of his men.
He said Rajanpur district was important strategically as several rivers, three provinces, roads and oil and gas pipelines converged here. There had been 500 kidnappings in RY Khan by gangs based in Rajanpur and the 2011 operation had been launched to establish the state’s writ in the area. Police from 11 districts and weapons worth Rs500 million were used in the operation.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2013.