Two army gunship helicopters have arrived in Rajanpur district to support the Punjab Police in their search for a group of bandits holding eight policemen and three civilians hostage in the Punjab-Sindh-Balochistan border region.
Police from eight districts have cordoned off a vast area from Dera Mor Kashmore to Rojhan, aiming to seal the Sindh border near Rajanpur. The bandits led by Chotu Mazari are believed to have fled towards the Sindh border in the precincts of Shah Wali police station.
Around 60 bandits had captured three islands in the Indus in Rajanpur district last Saturday and overrun police pickets there, killing one policeman and taking eight hostage. They managed to slip a police net around the islands after talks for safe release of the hostages broke down on Tuesday night.
Sources privy to the search operation said that Chotu Mazari, with some 60 men and 11 hostages in tow, had stayed at the dera of Addo Shah near Guddo Barrage. The men included around a dozen locals and around 40 from Sindh. They dumped their weapons at his agricultural land and later left for Sindh in pick-up trucks. Shah, the sources said, owns thousands of acres on which he cultivates sugarcane and police are looking for the weapons the bandits dumped.
The Punjab Police, with support from police from the Sindh districts of Ghotki, Shikarpur and Kashmore, is attempting to seal the Sindh border. The police has also deployed informers and alerted Border Military Police and local contacts on the route towards the Koh-i-Suleman Range leading to Dera Bugti to keep a lookout in case the bandits head in that direction.
The sources said that Chotu Mazari had close links with dacoits in interior Sindh, particularly those of the Shar clan of Ghotki district. The notorious Salto Shar is a close friend of his and could accommodate the bandit leader, his men and the hostages in Sindh, the sources said.
Apart from looking in sugarcane fields, riverine areas and forests, police are also checking small settlements to try and find out who provided transport to the bandits.
PML-N MPA Sardar Atif Mazari told The Express Tribune that the army helicopters were used to fly over the Koh-i-Suleman range and the border area with Sindh to take pictures.
He said that the chief minister had personally requested the Pakistan Army to provide gunship helicopters to support the Punjab Police in the search operation. He said his tribesmen were also seeking information about the bandits. “A breakthrough can come any time as it is not easy to go undetected when you are travelling with hostages and 70 or 80 people,” he said.
About the failed negotiations for the release of the hostages, he said that Chotu Mazari had sought a Rs10 million ransom for the civilian hostages Dr Wazir Khan, his son and driver – kidnapped a few months ago, but he had convinced him to withdraw the demand. “He was ready to release the three civilians as well as return the eight policemen and their weapons and leave the islands,” he said.
The only demand of the bandits, he said, was the release of three companions arrested three months ago. He said that the home secretary, the Punjab Police IG and the regional police officers of DG Khan and Bahawalpur were on board during the negotiations.
Police official said that Chotu Mazari and the three men he wanted released were members of the banned outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. They said Chotu Mazari was from Khanpur in Rahim Yar Khan.
Sources close to the chief minister said that PML-N MPAs had urged him to call in the army to lead the operation – as they had before a massive police operation in the same area in 2011 – but he had refused to do so because he was concerned that “once the army enters the area, it will be impossible for the civilians to get them to leave”. He told the PML-N legislators that he did not want Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan to become like Dera Bugti in Balochistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2013.