LAHORE - The specific mandate of Rangers engagement for special search and comb operations would focus highly-sensitive zones in Punjab to cleanse them of terrorist sleeper cells and their high-profile facilitators.

But it does not mean that the paramilitary force would not be allowed to operate in other parts of the province, security agencies officials told The Nation yesterday.

The highly-sensitive zones include Mianwali, Attock, Sargodha, Chakwal, Rawalpindi, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Okara, Faisalabad, Rajanpur-Rojhan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Rahim Yar Khan, Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Bahawalpur, Multan, Lodhran and Lahore districts, according to security officials.

However, any district can be include or excluded from the list following the emerging scenario in different areas as the operation progresses, in the light of intelligence inputs, added the security officials.

Special search and comb operations under the command of Rangers can be started in phases, cleaning the highly-sensitive zones of southern, northern and central Punjab one by one or selecting one district at a time from each of these zones, they said.

Special search and comb operations were launched in the Punjab last month, dividing the province into sensitive and highly sensitive zones following the directions of the prime minister and the COAS for aggressive and accelerated counter-terror actions after the Quetta carnage.

Rangers help has been sought to deal with extra-ordinary situation in difficult areas, said Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, adding that the force will purge these areas of militants’ associates and their facilitators.

The paramilitary force is to be engaged for a period of two months in the first phase and an extension can be made in their deputation if the provincial government deemed it necessary, the minister claimed.

Engaging Rangers in Punjab for special operations against the banned outfits’ sleeper units, their facilitators and their nexus with organised crime gangs was in the pipeline since January this year. However, certain quarters in the provincial government advised their big bosses not to engage them, apparently out of political considerations.

In a meeting of the provincial apex committee held in November 2015, some members of the body insisted at bringing in at least two wings of the force, including the Rangers Anti-Terror Section (RATS), to deal directly with extraordinary terror-related situations and to assist the Counter-Terrorism Department.

However, those opposing this move insisted that provincial government possesses the required capabilities and strength to deal with any situation.

In April this year, the Chotu gang in riverine area of southern Punjab exposed the weaknesses of the provincial law enforcement and anti-terrorism agencies, making it clear that dealing with religious militancy was a far cry for them as they were even unable to deal with crime gangs.

Rangers were engaged later in that operation, but they were given the supporting role only. Finally, the help of the army was sought to control the damage and finish the operation.

A summary of Home Department sent to chief minister said that Rangers will be deployed in specific threat zones, as agreed by the provincial apex committee, following actionable intelligence and force will carry out joint operations with Counter-Terrorism Department. It also said that Rangers can also be included in the Joint Investigation Teams (JIT).

However, security officials told the paper that the paramilitary force could also operate freely to pursue terror targets where an extraordinary situation compels it to do so.

The RATS of Rangers can also be engaged for intelligence-led counter-terror operations launched by the secret services of the military. So far the intelligence agencies of the military have been engaging their own special counter-terror units for first line of action covered by the regular army troops.

Military high command has a special concern for catching the high-profile terror facilitators. Security agencies of the military have already conveyed to the civilian setup to tighten the noose around the ‘influential facilitators’ of terrorism and organised crime lords in Punjab.

The agencies of the military desire the task should be carried out by their civilian counterparts, and in case of any hindrance or political hiccups, they themselves could pursue the key facilitators of terror and organised crime.