Reuters International

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces battled on Friday to dislodge a criminal gang holding 24 hostages from its island hideout in the prosperous province of Punjab, with a top regional official saying it had at most 48 hours in which to surrender.

The security operation involving more than 1,600 security forces is now in its tenth day, an unprecedented use of force by the powerful military in Punjab, which is the political power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Television broadcast images of police and army commandos firing assault weapons at the 10-km- (6-mile-) long island in the centre of the Indus River, as an armoured personnel carrier drove by.

"The gang will not be allowed to get away," Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters in televised comments.

"Political and military leaders agree that there will be no negotiations with these criminals, nor will we entertain any of their demands."

He added, "They will either have to surrender or be eliminated within the coming 24 to 48 hours."

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

At least six police officials have been killed in the battle for the island, launched in a sweeping crackdown after a Taliban suicide bombing killed 72 people in Lahore, the provincial capital, last month.

It was unclear just how many members of the "Chotu Group", blamed for hundreds of cases of kidnapping for ransom, murder and robbery, were trapped there, but police said their families were believed to be accompanying them.

Police spokeswoman Nabeela Ghazanfar said seven of the gang's leaders had been killed by police and eight injured, while six police officials had died and seven were hurt in clashes. Policemen were among the 24 hostages, she added.

The battle is taking place near Rajanpur, one of the poorest districts in Punjab, where the Panjnad River flows into the Indus, Pakistan's lifeline.

Authorities said the gang was led by Ghulam Rasool, also known as Chotu, a longtime criminal active in the border areas of the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

Previous military crackdowns have focussed 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.

(Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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