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Pakistan Fights To Free 24 Cops After Anti-Gang Operation Goes Wrong

Deadly firefights are all too common in Pakistan, but few compare with the extraordinary battle that's been waged on an island in a remote stretch of the Indus River over the last few days.

It's taking place in the country's "cotton belt", where the river has completed about three-quarters of its southerly journey from the mountains of Tibet to the Arabian Sea.

About 1,600 police and 300 paramilitary rangers and commandos are attempting to flush out a large group of men who are armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs. They're holed up amid the island's towering elephant grass and dense woodland.

The majority of the men are from what's known as the "Choto gang." They specialize in kidnapping for ransom, and are also suspected of ties with Islamist militants and separatist insurgents from Pakistan's Balochistan province.

Police officials have confirmed to NPR that six policemen have been killed, and that the gang is holding 24 more officers hostage on the island, which is about five miles long.

Local media reports say that the hostages appear to have been seized after the police attempted to reach the heavily fortified island by boat, but were spotted by gang members, who opened fire.

A recording has been posted on YouTube that purportedly is a conversation between a senior police officer and the gang's leader — Ghulam Rasool Mazari, nicknamed "Choto" — in which a man threatens to kill the hostages one by one unless the police release arrested gang members.

The police are being advised by senior army officers from Pakistan's special forces, and are using surveillance drones to try to locate the gang and their captives. Media reports suggest air strikes have been under consideration.

The 190 million or so people of Pakistan are well accustomed to hearing about gun fights between criminal gangs and the police in their largest city, Karachi, and about regular militant attacks across the landscape. These have dipped in recent months following a major crackdown by the army.

Much of this violence receives little attention because it is so commonplace, but the battle on the Indus River is proving a compelling reminder that the writ of the state still does not extend to parts of Pakistan — even in its most populous and prosperous province, Punjab. It is dominating the headlines.

Mazari — a round-faced, moustachioed man who's long been high on the police's wanted list — is a powerful local figure in a murky world tangled with tribal rivalries and shady political dealmaking.

He was interviewed 10 years ago by the Pakistani journalist Zafar Aaheer, who says "Choto" started out at 12 on the streets selling tea, and turned to robbery, car theft and kidnapping after he was cheated out of his land by a tribal rival.

Aaheer says Choto abducted 12 Chinese engineers in 2005, whom he later released after the police agreed not to arrest him.

In a statement, Punjab police said they've killed seven members of the Choto gang, of whom several are "ringleaders." One was accused in 19 criminal cases, including the abduction of a government official.

Rooting out the gang from their Indus River island and retrieving their hostages likely will be a lengthy and complex operation. The Choto gang is believed to be well-entrenched and knows the terrain, which is regarded as a sanctuary for smugglers, militants and kidnappers and has been a "no-go zone" for the security services. And the police lack the capability for amphibious fighting.

"The islet's defences are fortified," said Ejaz Haider, a security analyst, in a tweet to NPR. He said the gang has a lot of ammunition and rations — but that "they are also surrounded."

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.