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Operation Searchlight-II

Although Dacca had been benumbed overnight, the situation in the rest of the province continued to be fluid for some time. Chittagong, Rajshahi and Pabna, in particular, gave us anxious moments for several days.

The total number of Bengali and West Pakistani troops in Chittagong was estimated at 5,000 and 600 respectively. The former consisted of trained recruits at the East Bengal Centre (2,500), the newly raised 8 East Bengal, East Pakistan Rifles Wing and Sector Headquarters, and the police. Our troops were mainly the elements of 20 Baluch whose advance party had sailed back to West Pakistan. A senior non-Bengali army officer in Chittagong, Lieutenant-Colonel Fatemi, was ordered to hold ground to allow time for reinforcements from Comilla to arrive.

The rebels initially had all the success. They effectively blocked the route of the Comilla column by blowing up the Subapur Bridge near Feni, They also controlled major parts of Chittagong cantonment and the city. The only islands of government authority there were the 20 Baluch area and the naval base. Major Ziaur Rahman, the second-in command of 8 East Bengal, assumed command of the rebels in Chittagong in the absence of Brigadier Mozumdar (who had been tactfully taken to Dacca a few days earlier). While the government troops clung to the radio station, in order to guard the building, Major Zia took control of the transmitters separately located on Kaptai Road and used the available equipment to broadcast the ‘declaration of independence’ of Bangla Desh. Nothing could be done to turn the tables unless reinforcements arrived in Chittagong.

The G.O.C., Major-General Khadim Hussain, learnt about the stoppage of the Comilla about fifty minutes past midnight on D-day. He ordered Brigadier Iqbal Shafi to cross the nullah (ravine), leaving the bridge in hostile hands, and make his way to Chittagong at the earliest opportunity. Brigadier Iqbal Shafi, however, could not make any headway without taking the bridge. This he did next day by 10 AM the column moved, but again it was pinned down by hostile fire at Comeera, about twenty kilometers short of Chittagong. The Advance Company suffered eleven casualties including the commanding officer, who was killed. The column lost contact with Brigade Headquarters (Comilla) as well as with Divisional Headquarters (Dacca).

The lack of information about the column raised much apprehension in Dacca. It might have been butchered! If so, what would be the fate of Chittagong? Would it remain with the rebels? With Chittagong in hostile control, what would be the outcome of operation SEARCHLIGHT?

The G.O.C. decided to locate the missing column himself in an army helicopter next day. He would fly to Chittagong first and then follow the Chittagong-Comilla Road so that, if the column had meanwhile made any progress, he might find it on the outskirts of Chittagong. As his helicopter fluttered close to the Chittagong hills to land in the 20 Baluch area, it attracted small arms fire from the rebels who had taken up positions on the high ground. The chopper was hit but sustained no serious damage. It managed to land safely. The G.O.C. got down for a quick briefing by Lieutenant-Colonel Fatemi on the Chittagong situation. The Colonel triumphantly reported his success in controlling the East Bengal Centre by killing 50 and capturing 500 rebels. The rest of Chittagong, however was still with the rebels.

As the G.O.C. walked to the helicopter to continue the search, he saw a terror-stricken woman with a baby in her arms. She was the wife of a West Pakistani officer desperately seeking to be evacuated to Dacca. She was accommodated.

The helicopter was in the competent hands of an ace pilot, Major Liaquat Bokhari who was ably assisted by Major Pater. They flew the G.O.C. along the Comilla Road, but could not see anything because of the low cloud formation. When they were approximately over Comeera, the G.O.C. studied the quarter-inch map spread on his knees, looked out and ordered the pilot to go down through the clouds. As the helicopter descended and the G.O.C. craned his anxious neck to locate the column, a quick splash of bullets sprang up from the ground. The pilot pulled up instinctively. Nevertheless, his machine was hit. One bullet grazed the tail while another pierced through its belly, only inches away from the fuel tank. Major Bokhari, apparently unperturbed by the incident, said to the G.O.C. ‘Sir, do you want me to make another attempt. ‘No, make, for Dacca direct.’ The mission had failed. The column was not located.

Meanwhile, General Mitha had sent a commando detachment (ex 3 Commando Battalion) from Dacca to Chittagong by air with, the same mission-to link up with the column. The detachment did not know the location of the missing column or the rebels’ position. They had to rely on their own intelligence. A Bengali officer, Captain Hamid, appeared from nowhere and said to the commanding officer of the commandos, I have come from Murree to look up my parents in Chittagong. I know the area. May I go with you as a guide?’ His offer was accepted.

The day (27 March) the commandos were to undertake the search/link up operation, the G.O.C. moved his tactical head quarters to Chittagong and sent a column of 20 Baluch on the same mission but on a different route. The success of the operation hinged on a link up of these three columns. The 20 Baluch column got involved with the rebels soon after leaving its unit area but the commandos dashed to the target, the Bengali officer with them. They had not got very far when they came under cross-fire from the hills flanking the Chittagong-Comilla Road. Thirteen of them were killed including the commanding officer, two young officers, one junior commissioned officer and nine other ranks. The effort had proved both abortive and expensive.

At the other end, Brigadier Iqbal Shafi had himself assumed the command of the column after the Comeera incident. He sent for a battery of mortars which joined him from Comilla on 27 March. He planned a dawn attack for 28 March. The attack was successful. He broke the resistance and cleared his way to Chittagong. He finally reported his presence at Haji Camp, the pre-embarkation resting place for pilgrims, on the edge of Chittagong City.

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