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Militant leader was held in Cuba

Pakistan group vows to kill two Chinese

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, thought to have forged ties with Al Qaeda since his release is leading a militant band whose members have strapped explosives on two Chinese engineers they kidnapped in a lawless region near the Afghanistan border.

With Pakistani security forces deployed in the mountainous tribal area where the kidnappers holed up, local leaders sought yesterday to negotiate the release of the two Chinese, who were building a dam when they were kidnapped Saturday.

The five kidnappers threatened to kill the hostages unless the militants are allowed safe passage to a nearby area where their leader, Abdullah Mehsud, is believed hiding, officials said.

''We will not accept this demand," Brigadier Mahmood Shah, chief of security for Pakistan's northwestern tribal regions, said in a telephone interview.

Shah said troops surrounded the kidnappers but were refraining from the use of force for the safety of the hostages.

Mehsud, 28, came back to Pakistan in March after about two years' detention at the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He had been captured by US-allied Afghan forces in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, in December 2001 while fighting for the Taliban, Pakistani officials said.

It was not clear why US authorities released Mehsud. After he returned to his tribal homeland in South Waziristan, he became a rebel leader and has opposed Pakistani forces that are hunting Al Qaeda fighters in the semiautonomous area.

''Mehsud has become a hero to anti-US fighters active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan," The News daily paper in Islamabad said yesterday. ''He keeps long hair and has a daredevil nature. All this has made him a colorful and interesting character."

The newspaper said Mehsud, who uses an artificial leg after losing a limb to a land mine while fighting for the Taliban, speaks a little English learned talking to US soldiers at Guantanamo Bay.

A Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mehsud is believed to have recently forged ties with Al Qaeda and is receiving financing from the terror group.

Foreign militants, mainly from Uzbekistan, are loyal to him, the official said.

Pakistan's military has staged a series of offensives this year targeting Al Qaeda fighters in South Waziristan and claims to have broken up several terrorist hideouts and training camps.

The fighting has killed dozens of militants, soldiers and civilians.

The remote region is also a suspected hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, although there is no firm evidence on their whereabouts.

About 1,500 tribal elders met late yesterday in Barwand, a town near where the Chinese were held, to pressure the kidnappers to release the pair as well as their Pakistani driver and security guard.

''We are upset on the kidnapping of the Chinese who were building a dam to give us water and electricity," said Inayat Mahsud, the head of a tribal council.

At least one former Afghan detainee at Guantanamo returned to his militant past.

Taliban fighter Abdul Ghaffar was released in 2002 after eight months in detention, only to become a commander for the Islamic militia in southern Afghanistan.

He was killed by US forces in a gunbattle last month.

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