Pakistan frees hostages after militants attack convoy

Dozens of students had been held

Some students had been released by militants before the Pakistan army said it freed the remaining hostages. Some students had been released by militants before the Pakistan army said it freed the remaining hostages. (Reuters)
By Ashraf Khan and Nahal Toosi
Associated Press / June 2, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - Pakistani forces early today freed dozens of students and teachers held hostage by Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan, Pakistani military officials said.

The hostages had been part of a convoy ambushed yesterday by the militants. That attack was part of a string of militant actions in Pakistan's tribal belt that the army believes is partly aimed at distracting the military from its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. The militants were said to have been armed with rockets, grenades and automatic weapons.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in either the ambush of the convoy or the rescue of the hostages.

Major General Athar Abbas said today that at least one hostage was still missing. He said the militants planned to take the captives to South Waziristan. No other details were released.

Details were still emerging early today about what exactly happened in North Waziristan. Originally as many as 500 people were believed to have been abducted, but about 200 students were later found to be safe.

Police official Meer Sardar said the abduction had occurred about 20 miles from Razmak Cadet College. The victims were leaving the school area after they were warned to get out in a phone call from a man they believed to be a political official, Sardar said, citing accounts from a group of 17 who managed to escape.

Local media, however, reported that the group was leaving because their school vacation had started.

About 30 buses, cars, and other vehicles were carrying the students, staff, and others when they were stopped along the road by a large group of gunmen in their own vehicles, according to a school employee who was among those who escaped. He said the vehicle he was riding in happened to be behind a truck on the road and it was able to slip away unnoticed.

The employee requested anonymity out of fear of Taliban reprisal. He said the assailants carried rockets, Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, and other weapons. He estimated about 400 captives were initially taken.

North and South Waziristan are major Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds bordering Afghanistan. They are roughly 150 miles from the Swat Valley, where Pakistani soldiers and Taliban militants have been fighting for weeks.

Clashes in the past three days in South Waziristan have killed at least 25 militants and nine soldiers. In the latest attack, reported by the army yesterday, militants fired rockets at troops, killing two.

The fresh fighting is fueling speculation that a month after re-igniting its battle against Taliban militants in Swat, the military will widen the offensive to South Waziristan. But Abbas said yesterday that for now, troops on the ground were simply reacting to attacks, not opening a new front.

"This is all to divert attention," from the Swat fighting, Abbas said.

With its hands full in Swat, opening a front in South Waziristan now would be risky for the military.

Known for its harsh terrain, reticent tribes, and porous border with Afghanistan, as well as its history of limited federal government oversight, South Waziristan would probably be a tougher test for Pakistan's armed forces than Swat. The region also is the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

The tribal areas also are the suspected hideouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Abbas said major towns and cities in the Swat Valley would probably be cleared of Taliban fighters in a matter of days. The military has already recaptured Mingora, Swat's main urban center. But many of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley were believed to have fled to the hills, and Abbas said clearing those rural areas could take months.

Another problem with tackling South Waziristan is that it would exacerbate an already massive humanitarian challenge facing the country: up to 3 million people displaced by the fighting. Already, large numbers of families have begun leaving South Waziristan amid rumors of an imminent operation.