Reuters International

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An armed Pakistani gang that held 24 policemen hostage on an Indus River island has surrendered, army spokesman said on Wednesday, ending a gripping two-week standoff that has embarrassed the country's police.

The operation with more than 2,000 police and paramilitary forces stumbled early on after at least six police officials were killed and two dozen officers kidnapped in an initial bid to take back the island in the southern part of Punjab province.

The army took control of the fight against the so-called "Chotu Gang" on April 16 after a slew of embarrassing headlines for police in local newspapers.

"Chotu with his 13 gang members surrendered unconditionally," army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said on Twitter, referring to gang leader Ghulam Rasool, also known as Chotu.

Bajwa added that all 24 hostage policemen were rescued safely and families of the gunmen being held there were also freed. The presence of those wives and children, who were used as human shields, complicated efforts to retake the island.

The battle to dislodge the gang was launched as part of a sweeping crackdown on lawlessness in Punjab after a Taliban suicide bombing killed 72 people in Lahore, the provincial capital, last month.

On Tuesday, the army deployed troops, artillery and helicopter gunships in an unprecedented use of force by the military in Punjab, the political power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The Chotu gang is blamed for hundreds of cases of kidnapping for ransom, murder and robbery. For the standoff, it built bunkers on the 10-km (six-mile) long island near Rajanpur, one of the poorest districts in Punjab.

Local TV channels showed footage of helicopter gunships targeting the island late into Tuesday.

While Pakistan's attention has for years been focused on the Taliban and al Qaeda threat along the Afghan border in the northwest, militants and criminals have quietly expanded their influence and won recruits in the country's heartland of Punjab.

Previous military crackdowns have focused on the lawless tribal regions where the Taliban and other militants are based. Paramilitary Rangers also launched a crackdown on criminals in the violent southern port city of Karachi in 2013.

(Reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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 Reuters International