Showdown in South Punjab

Police and Rangers fight gangs holed up in tri-border riverine areas

Showdown in South Punjab
On April 12, only two days into the much-anticipated counterterrorism operation in Punjab, police asked for air support against gangs holed up in the tri-border riverine areas in the south of the province. A nod came soon after a number of policemen were killed and several others were abducted, according to news reports.

On April 10, two militants were killed and three injured in the joint operation by the Police and Rangers in the Rojhan tehsil of southern Punjab’s Rajanpur district. The inspector general of Punjab Police, Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera, was in the town to oversee the beginning of what has been dubbed Operation Zarb-e-Ahan, carried out by the police, the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD), and the paramilitary Rangers.

“Zarb-e-Ahan will continue until the elimination of the last terrorist,” Sukhera said, adding that the operation had the complete support of the government – both provincial and federal – and the armed forces.

Rajanpur’s Chotu Gang, led by Ghulam Rasool (also known as Chotu Bakhrani) was the first target. The gang is believed to be involved in a number of high-profile abductions.

The district’s riverine areas have been cordoned off by the security forces, and the movement of suspects is being monitored, police says.

“Terrorists have fled the northwest following Zarb-e-Azb and settled in southern Punjab, especially in Rahimyar Khan and the riverine areas (along Indus),” Sukhera said. “It is these areas that will be targeted first. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Army Chief Raheel Shareef and Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif are all fully backing the operation and have allocated all the necessary resources and weapons to ensure its success.”
The operation follows a verbal understanding between civil and military authorities

The ISPR announced that a Joint Operations Coordination Committee will review and regulate the operation. The ISI will be heading the intelligence commission of Zarb-e-Ahan, along with Military Intelligence and the Intelligence Bureau.

According to an intelligence official, the ‘hit-list’ for the operation has been finalized. “We are targeting all banned outfits, whatever their ideological inclination,” the official said, adding that all militants affiliated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Sipah-e-Muhammad and even larger networks like Al Qaeda and TTP, will be hunted down.

“There is absolutely no discrimination between groups. Sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba were already being targeted under the leadership of former home minister Shuja Khanzada, who was unfortunately assassinated last year,” the official said. “Recently we’ve raided Jaish-e-Muhammad’s offices in Bahawalpur as well. The CTD recently busted a cell affiliated with ISIS in Sialkot. Militancy in Punjab was already being targeted, but now we have a formal operation in place.”

Another security official said a separate list for terrorist facilitators is also being made. “There are some NGOs that are facilitating terror activities,” said the official. “We are keeping a close eye on their activity and movement as well.”

The officials said a number of politicians known to be sympathizers of some of these groups were also being monitored.

PML-N officials deny any of the party’s leaders sympathized with militant groups, and assert that the government is completely supporting Zarb-e-Ahan.

On April 11, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan told a press conference that the Punjab Operation is a joint venture of the government and the army. According to newspaper reports, Chaudhry Nisar had summoned PML-N leaders from southern Punjab for meetings a day before that. Some reports said the Rangers had refused to take forward positions in the riverine areas, saying their role was to facilitate the provincial police unless they’re specially requisitioned under Article 147 of the Constitution and Section 4 and 5 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The Punjab government had not requisitioned the Rangers, according to news reports, which then speculated that there was a lack of consensus among the political ranks.

But the Rangers did give mortar cover to the raiding policemen. After the IG visited the frontline on March 12, he told reporters that “the mortar attack by Rangers has given a visible support to police against the gangsters.”

According to Punjab Home Ministry officials, there were no formal instructions for special powers for the Rangers to carry out operations in the province. They say the operation would be conducted in line with a verbal understanding between civil and military authorities.

A PML-N party official says that while there is a consensus among the party’s leaders with regard to the military operation, there are minor disagreements that need to be sorted out. “The thought of engaging Rangers to deal with banned outfits in Punjab has actually been discussed among the party leaders for months, long before the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park terrorist attack,” he says, adding that the bombing had added more impetus to the idea.