updated 5/24/2007 1:39:58 PM ET 2007-05-24T17:39:58

Nine Pakistani government officials kidnapped by suspected militants last week as they inspected sites for development projects in a restive tribal region were freed Wednesday, one of the officials said.

The nine, including six women, who were kidnapped in North Waziristan, were being transported to the main northwestern city of Peshawar, Zahir Ullah told The Associated Press by phone.

“We were freed today. I can’t tell you who had held us. We have arrived at Bannu and will be going to Peshawar,” he said. Bannu is a town located near North Waziristan, a lawless region near the Afghan border where Taliban and al-Qaida militants are active.

Initially, the government had said eight officials were in the party abducted late Friday when their vehicle was ambushed by gunmen as they carried out a survey for building new schools, roads and hospitals. But Ullah said there were in fact nine officials.

Motive unclear
It was not immediately clear exactly from where they were released and the motive for their abduction. Tribal elders had been seeking their freedom.

Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, but militants have expanded their influence in North Waziristan since a September 2006 peace deal with Pakistan’s government ended months of bloody fighting between pro-Taliban tribesmen and security forces.

Since then, the deal has been holding, although the government has carried out selective operations to target suspected al-Qaida hideouts, triggering protests by the residents and local militants.

On Tuesday, Pakistani security forces backed by helicopter gunships attacked a militant training camp in North Waziristan, killing four suspected militants, the army said.

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