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Operation Searchlight-III

Next to Haji camp were the Isphahani Jute Mills where, before the arrival of our troops, an orgy of blood was staged by the rebels. They collected their helpless non-Bengali victims-men, women and children-in the club building and hacked them to death. I visited the scene of this gruesome tragedy a few days later and saw blood-spotted floors and walls. Women’s clothes and the children’s toys lay soaked in a congealing pool of blood. In the adjoining building, I saw bed sheets and mattresses stiffened with dried blood. While this happened the Pakistan Army was still attempting a link-up of the three columns. The link-up was effected on 29 March and the happy news was radioed to Dacca, where tense officers in the operations room heaved a sigh of relief. But it was too late for the victims at the Isphahani Mills slaughter-house.

The only success in Chittagong so far had been the unloading of 9,000 tons of ammunition from the ship which had been gheraoed, by the Awami League volunteers since mid-March. Brigadier M.H. Ansari, who had flown from Dacca, had mustered all available resources-an infantry platoon, a few mortars and two tanks-and formed a task force. The Navy had lent the support of a destroyer and a few gunboats. He had achieved this success with marvelous skill. Later an additional battalion was also flown from Dacca to Chittagong.

Although the situation with regard to the availability of resources had improved, the main battle for Chittagong had yet to be fought. The radio transmitters, East Pakistani Rifles Sector Headquarters and the Reserve Police Lines in the District Courts area (the concentration point for the policemen, ex-servicemen and armed volunteers) remained to be cleared before the general flushing out of the area could be undertaken.

General Mitha was the first to have a go at the transmitter building. He sent a commando detachment to blow it up. His troops approached the target from the flank, following the river-route. They soon came under fire while still in country boats. Sixteen of them were killed. Mitha’s second attempt too proved abortive and highly expensive. Major-General Khadim then sent a column of 20 Baluch under Lieutenant-Colonel Fatemi. Once again, Fatemi managed to involve himself in some sort of engagement with the rebels on the way and never reached the transmitters. Finally, two F-86s (Sabres) from Dacca had to knock them out. I visited the sight a few days later and found the building well fortified with pillboxes and foxholes-all interconnected with a fine network of trenches. The building was intact.

The other principal target was the East Pakistan Rifles Headquarters where 1,000 armed rebels were well entrenched. Located on high ground, they had artfully laid their defences along the embankment with holes and slits to facilitate small arms fire. Our troops knew the odds and prepared a massive attack to neutralize them. The attacking troops, approximately in battalion strength and the support of a naval destroyer, two gunboats, two tanks and a heavy mortar battery. The battle raged for three hours before the defiant rebels could be subdued. This happened on 31 March-the sixth day of operation SEARCHLIGHT.

The next target was the Reserve Police Lines where 20,000 rifles are reportedly stocked, to be used by an assortment of rebels. A battalion-strength attack was launched there, too, but the defenders proved less dogged than the East Pakistan Rifles personnel and then withdrew towards the Kaptai Road.

The key role in neutralizing these points of resistance was played by Brigadier Ansari. His gallant services were later recognized by the award of the Hilal-I-Jurat and promotion to the rank of Major General (although earlier he had been superseded).

The main operations in Chittagong were over by the end of March, but the mopping up action continued until April. The other two towns where the rebels had an upper hand were Kushtia and Pabna. Let us see how our troop fared there.

Kushtia, about 90 kilometers from Jessore, is an importand road and rail junction. Our troops were not permanently located there but, on the D-day, 27 Baluch (Jessore) had sent one of its companies ‘just to establish our presence there’. For want of proper briefing the company carried only small arms, a few recoilless rifles and a limited quantity of ammunition. They thought that they were going on normal internal security duty, which usually did not involve heavy fighting.

The company commander distributed his manpower in small groups and assigned them the task of guarding the telephone exchange and VHF station. He also sent small parties to arrest the local Awami League leaders-but they had all left. He established his presence, after killing five rebels on the first day (26 March). Thereafter it was only enforcement of curfew and collection of arms from the civilians. Two days passed peacefully.

On 28 March, at about 9.30 PM, the local Superintendent of Police, pale with fear, came to the company commander; Major Shoib, pale with fear, came to the company commander, Major Shoaib, and reported that the rebels had gathered in the border town of Chuadanga, about 16 kilometres from Kushtia and were about to attack the town at night. They were also threatening to kill all ‘collaborators’. The company commander passed a word of caution to his platoons, but the troops did not take it very seriously. They did not even bother to dig their trenches.

The attack commenced at 3.45 AM (29 March) with heavy mortar shelling. It jolted our troops out of all illusions of safety. They soon realized that the attackers were none other than the troops of I East Bengal which had been sent out from Jessore cantonment ‘for training’. They had been joined at Chuadanga by the Indian Border Security Force (B.S.F.). (Four Indian B.S.F. soldiers were captured near Jessore and two near Sylhet.)

The scene of the battle was the police armoury occupied earlier by our troops. The rebels managed to climb into the adjoining three-storey red brick house of a local Judge and used it as a vantage point. From there they sprayed bullets into the police building. At dawn, five of our men lay dead in the compound. By 9 A.M, the toll had risen to eleven. In the next half-hour, nine more had fallen. Only a few survivors managed to escape to the company headquarters about a kilometer away. Shortage of ammunition and lack of cover were the immediate causes of the disaster.

The other posts in Kushtia town-the telephone exchange and VHF station-had simultaneously come under equally severe attack. So neither of the posts could reinforce the other. In the company headquarters, eleven lay dead at one place and fourteen at another. In all, twenty-five out of sixty men had been massacred in the early part of the engagement. Frantic messages for help were sent to Jessore and even an air strike was requested, but nothing reached Kushtia. The last Message received from Jessore by the end of the day said, ‘Troops here already committed. No reinforcement possible. Air strike called off due to poor visibility… Khuda Hafiz!

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