Pakistani Militants Hold Army Troops Hostage
By ISMAIL KHAN and CARLOTTA GALL | September 4, 2007
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Sept. 3 — Close to 300 Pakistani soldiers and officers have been held captive for four days after they were seized by pro-Taliban militants in a tribal region near the Afghan border without a shot being fired, government officials said Monday.
It was the first time government officials acknowledged that so many men had been captured and that they were being held hostage. The government has asked tribal elders to intercede to seek the release of the soldiers, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the embarrassment the capture has caused the government.
The militants have demanded that the military withdraw from the restive area of South Waziristan and release 15 of their men from government custody.
The capture of the soldiers on Thursday was a serious setback for the Pakistani military in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. It demonstrated the confidence of the militants in South Waziristan, one of seven Pakistani tribal regions that has been described as a virtual Taliban state, where the government has so little control that the military can move only with the consent of the local militants.
Foreign fighters are also known to live and operate in South Waziristan, but the captors of the soldiers seem to be Pakistanis who are sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Taliban claimed to have captured 300 men. A government official and a tribal elder, Maulan Esamuddin, who is involved in the negotiations, said 270 soldiers, officers and tribal paramilitary members had been captured. Nine were reported to be officers, including a colonel, and the Taliban had also seized 17 military trucks, officials have said.
The capture took place after an argument between officers and some militants. “Not a single shot was fired,” one official said.
The government has been reluctant to comment publicly on the situation. The chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, has said little and could not be reached for comment on Monday. He has told reporters over the last few days that the soldiers had not been captured, but were lodging with tribal villagers after running into poor weather.
But in comments made Monday to the television channel Dawn News, General Arshad admitted that the soldiers were being held hostage.
A tribal member of Parliament, Senator Saleh Shah, who was asked to help mediate their release, said the militants were demanding the withdrawal of the military from their area and the release of their comrades. The government rounded up 100 Mehsud tribesmen in the area soon after the soldiers were captured, but released the men again as part of the negotiations.
The Taliban militants holding the soldiers are loyal to the Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud, a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan and the strongman of the area. He is demanding that the government return to a peace agreement made in February 2005, which gave an amnesty to the militants as long as they refrained from attacking government installations and vehicles.
The agreement broke down last month when the Pakistani military redeployed troops into the area in a new operation against the militants and foreign fighters in the region and the militants declared the agreement over.
The agreement, and a subsequent one in September 2006 in the adjoining region of North Waziristan, have been much criticized for allowing the militants freedom to operate as the military pulled back from operations and checkpoints. The militants pledged not to allow foreign fighters in their midst or to run cross-border operations, but violated those pledges from the start, intelligence officials from several nations have said.
Officials from the United States watched with alarm as the cross-border violence increased and the militants expanded their reach into adjoining regions of Pakistan and sent suicide bombers and fighters into Afghanistan.
The soldiers captured Thursday were moving in a convoy through a remote area of South Waziristan where the Mehsud tribe holds sway, north of Wana, the regional capital, on the way to Luddah, some 25 miles north. The military normally has the right of way along roads in the tribal areas, but Mr. Mehsud, the Taliban commander, said he made a verbal agreement with a military commander in 2005 that the army would notify him of movements in his area.
A government official said the militants had feared that the military was planning an operation as it moved hundreds of troops, along with two truckloads of rations, through the area.
Ismail Khan reported from Peshawar, and Carlotta Gall from Islamabad, Pakistan.