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Militants to Free 12 Pakistani Soldiers, Officials Say

An Al Qaeda figure is believed to have been wounded in the military's offensive.

March 28, 2004|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Militant tribesmen in the South Waziristan region agreed Saturday to release 12 Pakistani troops captured more than a week ago in fighting, officials said.

The agreement came a day after the bodies of eight Pakistani soldiers who had been taken hostage last week were recovered in the tribal region along the Afghan border. The troops had been battling militants in the region.

South Waziristan Administrator Mohammed Azam Khan said that an agreement had been reached to release the 12 soldiers after talks at an undisclosed location in which members of the Zalikhel tribe served as intermediaries in negotiations with the militants.

At least 14 Pakistani troops and 24 suspected militants including foreigners were killed in a battle between the security forces and militants near the village of Azam Warsak on March 16. The troops were captured during the battle.

In all, officials said they had killed more than 60 militants and captured 160.

Meanwhile Saturday, Pakistani officials said they believed that Tahir Yuldashev, an Al Qaeda leader, was wounded during the Pakistani offensive in the mountainous region near the border, in which thousands of soldiers have fought foreign militants and their tribal allies.

Locals said that Yuldashev, whose Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2002, had been in the area for quite some time.

The military operation drew worldwide attention when President Pervez Musharraf said a "high-value target" was believed to be hiding in the area where his troops were battling militants. Other Pakistani officials and unnamed U.S. officials at the time said the target could be Ayman Zawahiri, the No. 2 figure in the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The Pakistani government also initially claimed that 500 to 600 foreign militants were in the cordoned-off zone.

A statement issued Saturday said that the operation was in its final stages and that its objectives had been largely achieved.

Arms and equipment recovered from the area include a variety of explosives, time bomb devices and communication equipment that can be used in terrorist activities.

Also Saturday, militants fired three missiles at a paramilitary checkpoint near Miram Shah in North Waziristan, but no casualties have been reported.

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