The riverine areas of southern Punjab have long been plagued by criminal gangs, including a crackdown on small gangs with the help of the army in 2016, over a dozen police raids in Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur districts over the past 20 years. Despite being operated on on a large scale, after hiding for some time, they raise their heads again.
Despite joint efforts by the provincial and federal governments over the years, all operations have apparently failed to ensure state writ in the Kacha areas and now, following intelligence reports, the Prime Minister has allowed another large-scale operation. Gone are the days when groups in two districts are re-emerging and turning them into ‘no-go areas’ again.
Under the plan, the operation will be carried out in four phases, including approach, clearance, stabilization and normalization, while the first phase was allegedly launched by the police on Monday night.
In addition, Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz, as a special case, approved the emergency procurement of four armored vehicles to provide logistical support to the police in dangerous riverine areas to avoid casualties.
An official familiar with the development told Dawn that the operation was approved in a meeting during the Prime Minister’s last visit to Lahore on Sunday, during which IG Punjab Rao Sardar Ali Khan, Additional Inspector General (South Punjab) Ehsan Sadiq, Home Secretary, DG Khan’s Regional Police Officer, Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan’s District Police Chiefs, as well as other law enforcement officers.
In a presentation, IG Punjab described the 5,000 sq km in both the districts as extremely dangerous, complex and seemingly inaccessible. Many parts of the river and its banks are out of the control of the district and police administration The groups are operating with alleged support from elements in Sindh and Balochistan.
The official added that the IG Punjab would oversee the entire operation and regularly update the Prime Minister on the progress while the Additional IG would lead the operation, during which local tribal leaders, border military police and criminals would be present. The role of facilitators was also discussed.
The Prime Minister was briefed that several operations launched since 2003 were insufficient to ensure the rule of law in the riverine areas and suggested that the provision of socio-economic infrastructure in the region was a solution to the never ending problems.
The prime minister is said to have considered a proposal by law enforcement agencies in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan to launch a joint operation to rid the area of these criminals.
The latest operation is being carried out by about 300 police personnel, elite force and other law enforcement agencies in Rajanpur and Rahim Yar Khan districts, the official said.
He said that in the first phase, the police would set up pickets and gain access and control of the areas, deploy a heavy contingent of armed police personnel, and liaise with the local tribal population to assist in the arrest of facilitators. The police will also try to set up a command and control and intelligence system to curb the movement of criminal aid groups in the Kacha areas in the border provinces.
The official added that in the next few weeks, in the next clearance phase, the police will work on the hideouts of the criminals, which may take another two to three weeks, after which work on the “stabilization” section of the operation will begin. Will be started to develop the police infrastructure, which includes a series of bridges over the Indus River, permanent outposts, police stations, patrols and deployment of officers.
Police will target Sindh, as well as the 200km area, which was once used as a safe haven by notorious gangs.
In the last phase of ‘normalization’, the government will focus on the socio-economic development of the region. It was decided that the Punjab government would build hospitals, schools and roads and provide employment to the local people.
Deputy Inspector General (Operations) Waqas Nazir confirmed that a large and comprehensive operation has been planned to clear the unpaved areas of Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur districts, adding that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif on Sunday At a meeting on Monday, the provincial police approved the use of all available resources to establish its writ in the riverine areas.
This time, he said, the government has drawn up a long-term plan aimed at resolving decades-old issues, as failure to address them has resulted in the loss of lives in the two districts even after previous police operations. Criminal elements kept re-emerging in the areas.
A spokesman for the DIG and Punjab Police said that the Prime Minister had assured technical and logistical support to the operation to normalize life in inaccessible and inaccessible areas.
Earlier in April 2016, during Shahbaz Sharif’s tenure as Chief Minister, the police had launched a major ground operation in the same Kacha areas under the leadership of the then Lahore Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Sadiq Ali, dubbed Zarb-e-Ahan. The operation against the notorious small gang in Rajanpur district was supported by the federal government as well as the Rangers, the anti-terrorism department and the army, which also provided helicopter gunships.
Ghulam Rasool alias Chhoto eventually surrendered to the forces and released the two dozen policemen who had been abducted by the gang.