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Pakistan Recovers Bodies of 8 Soldiers

The troops were seized during a campaign against militants in a tribal border region. A military official says the offensive may end soon.

March 27, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Authorities in the troubled tribal region along the Afghan border on Friday recovered the bodies of eight Pakistani soldiers taken hostage this week during an ambush on a military supply convoy.

The recovery came as a top Pakistani military official said that thousands of soldiers battling foreign militants and their tribal allies in the mountainous region were preparing to wind up their operation in the cordoned-off zone.

The convoy carrying fuel and rations was ambushed Monday on a highway about 25 miles northeast of Wana, a town in the South Waziristan region. Thirteen soldiers were killed and 22 wounded, while eight others went missing during the hit-and-run attack.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told The Times in a telephone interview from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, on Friday that volunteers from the Mahsood tribe recovered the bodies from a ditch.

"Perhaps the hostages were killed a couple of days back," Sultan said.

The recovery effort has enabled the military to gain a degree of cooperation from the Mahsoods, the larger of the two main tribes living in the South Waziristan region.

"The killing of hostages is against the traditions of the tribal region, and we have ordered our force of volunteers to kill the culprits involved in the incident," said Haji Mohammed Nawaz, a tribal elder. After the ambush, the Mahsood gathered 2,500 volunteers to find the missing soldiers and track down the attackers.

Fourteen paramilitary soldiers and two officials who were captured by militants last week during a battle between the troops and foreign fighters in the village of Azam Warsak are still missing.

Meanwhile, officials said negotiations between a 22-member peace delegation and the militants in Azam Warsak ended without any breakthrough Friday. An official in Wana reached by telephone said the delegation of Pushtun elders would try again today to negotiate with the militants and the Yargulkhel tribesmen who were sheltering them.

Lt. Gen Safdar Hussain, who is leading the strike against the militants, told the daily newspaper Dawn on Thursday that the army would soon wrap up operations in South Waziristan.

"We are winding up the operation by Saturday," he told the paper. "The mission that was given to us has been accomplished. We have achieved our objectives of destroying and denying sanctuary to militants."

However, Sultan said that the army had yet to achieve its objectives and that operations would continue in the area around Wana. The government has estimated that more than 500 foreign militants and their tribal supporters have holed up in the villages of Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Kaloosha in the fight against about 7,000 Pakistani troops.

The military strike, known as Operation Kaloosha-II, drew worldwide attention last week when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said a "high-value target" might be present in South Waziristan. Other Pakistani officials identified the target as the No. 2 figure in Al Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri.

However, Zawahiri has not been reported caught. On Thursday, an audiotape attributed to him aired on the Arab television channel Al Jazeera. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said U.S. intelligence had confirmed the voice on the tape -- which called for Musharaff's overthrow -- resembled Zawahiri's.

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