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200 Pakistani troops reportedly captured in lawless border area

They are being held by militants, say an official and trial elders seeking their release. Military disputes that account.

September 01, 2007|Zulfiqar Ali | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — In an embarrassing development for Pakistan's military, tribal elders and a government official in the lawless region along the border with Afghanistan confirmed Friday that they were negotiating with militants for the release of at least 200 captured soldiers.

The soldiers have been missing since Thursday evening in the Kani Guram area of South Waziristan, a troubled region where Taliban and other militants have congregated in growing numbers in the last few years.

A tribal elder said 205 soldiers were being held. The militants said they had captured 300 troops.

Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, a military spokesman in the capital, Islamabad, disputed the reports. He said the troops were with tribesmen, not militants, in an area called Laddah. He said there had been a misunderstanding over the soldiers' movements in the area and that a local official had begun efforts to secure their release.

Arshad declined to say how many soldiers were involved.

The local official, Hussain Zada Khan, said the tribal leaders in the area had convened a jirga, or council, of 35 elders, clerics and parliamentarians.

They will hold talks Monday morning in Laddah with the militant's commander, Baitullah Mahsud.

A purported spokesman for the militants claimed responsibility for the troops' capture.

Speaking to local journalists by phone Thursday from an undisclosed location, he said that 300 soldiers had been captured from a military convoy moving in the region.

"Security forces were making forward movement in the area, which was a violation of the peace deal between the government and mujahedin," the spokesman said, referring to the militants as "holy warriors."

Senior officials in Peshawar said seven officers, including a colonel, were among the missing.

They said a convoy was heading from Wana, the regional administrative headquarters, to Laddah when militants took positions on hilltops in the Kani Guram area and blocked the road.

The seized soldiers were taken to an unknown location.

Salih Shah, a tribal parliamentarian in the region, said authorities had asked him to start negotiations for the release of the troops.

"About 100 soldiers are taken hostages due to some misunderstanding between the forces and the local militants," said Shah, who recently secured the release of 18 paramilitary troops and an official in the region.

Militants agreed to that release after tribal elders assured them that that the government would abide by a February 2005 peace agreement that said security forces would not to operate in the area.

Militants said the government had breached the agreement by deploying forces.

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