Image: Pakistani students who escaped abduction
KARIM ULLAH  /  AFP - Getty Images
Pakistani students who escaped abduction by Taliban militants sit in a police van Monday as it arrives in Bannu. Hundreds of their colleagues were taken captive as they traveled from a restive tribal area near the Afghan border, police and government officials say.
updated 6/1/2009 11:04:21 PM ET 2009-06-02T03:04:21

The Pakistan army said Tuesday its troops rescued 79 people who were among a group abducted by Taliban militants in the northwestern region.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said at least one person was still missing.

The group consisted of students, teachers and others linked to a boys school in North Waziristan tribal region.

Abbas said the militants planned to take the captives to South Waziristan, where there were rumors of a planned military offensive.

The number of hostages originally taken captive has been difficult to pin down, with some saying hundreds were abducted after a roadside ambush by militants.

Abbas says the group of 80 was being held in North Waziristan's Goryam area. He spoke briefly and did not give many details.

Militants said to be heavily armed
Earlier, police were negotiating for the captives' release following the brazen abduction — part of a string of militant actions in Pakistan's tribal belt that the army believes is partly aimed at distracting the military from its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. The militants were said to be armed with rockets, grenades and automatic weapons.

Originally as many as 500 people were believed to have been abducted, but about 200 students were later found to be safe.

Police official Meer Sardar said the abduction occurred about 20 miles from Razmak Cadet College in North Waziristan. The people were leaving the school area after they were warned to get out in a phone call from a man they believed to be a political official, Sardar said, citing accounts from a group of 17 who managed to get away.

Local media, however, reported that the group was leaving because their vacation had started.

About 30 buses, cars and other vehicles were carrying the students, staff and others when they were stopped along the road by a large group of gunmen in their own vehicles, according to a school employee who was among those who escaped. He said the vehicle he was riding in happened to be behind a truck on the road and thus it was less visible and able to slip away unnoticed.

The employee requested anonymity out of fear of Taliban reprisal and said the school's principal was among those abducted. The staffer said the assailants carried rockets, Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and other weapons. He estimated about 400 captives were initially involved. 

Unclear how many were students
Police were negotiating with the Taliban via tribal elders for the hostages' release, said Mirza Mohammad Jihadi, an adviser to the prime minister. He said about 500 people were taken and that they were being held in the Bakka Khel area.

Around midnight, Javed Alam, a school vice principal, said about 200 of the students who had apparently evaded capture were tracked down at their homes. The principal was missing and his cell phone was turned off, Alam said.

Students made up the majority of the group. Cadet colleges in Pakistan are usually run by retired military officers and educate teenagers. They also typically provide room and board.

North and South Waziristan are major al-Qaida and Taliban strongholds bordering Afghanistan.

Clashes over the past three days in South Waziristan have killed at least 25 militants and nine soldiers. In the latest attack, reported by the army Monday, militants fired rockets at troops, killing two.

The fresh fighting is fueling speculation that a month after re-igniting its battle against Taliban militants in Swat, the military will widen the offensive to South Waziristan. But army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that for now, troops on the ground were simply reacting to attacks, not opening a new front.

"This is all to divert attention," Abbas said.

A stiffer test for Pakistan's military
With its hands full in Swat, opening a front in South Waziristan now would be risky for the military.

Known for its harsh terrain, reticent tribes and porous border with Afghanistan, as well as its history of limited federal government oversight, South Waziristan would likely be a stiffer test for Pakistan's armed forces than Swat. The region also is the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

However, the U.S. and other Western nations who have praised Pakistan's strong-armed tactics in Swat would likely not want South Waziristan to stay untouched. It's the tribal regions, after all, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have their key bases from which they plan attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.

The tribal areas also are the rumored hideouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.

Asked about a timeframe for clearing the area, Abbas simply replied, "A plan to go or not to go into South Waziristan — shouldn't that be a highly classified matter?"

The army spokesman said major towns and cities in the Swat Valley will likely be cleared of Taliban fighters in a matter of days. It has already recaptured Mingora, Swat's main urban center. But many of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley are believed to have fled to the hillsides, and Abbas said clearing those rural areas could require months more work.

Families leaving South Waziristan
One other problem with tackling South Waziristan now is that it would exacerbate an already massive humanitarian challenge facing the country — that of up to 3 million people displaced by the fighting so far. Already, large numbers of families have begun leaving South Waziristan amid rumors of an imminent operation.

Journalists have limited access to the tribal belt and Swat, making it difficult to independently verify information provided by the Pakistani military or other sources.

Militants, including Mehsud loyalists, have threatened and carried out some revenge attacks over the Swat operation in major Pakistani cities, including an assault on police and intelligence agency offices in the eastern city of Lahore that left 30 dead.

On Monday, a blast at a busy bus terminal in Kohat town, an area near the tribal regions, killed at least two people and wounded at least 18 others, said local police officer Zafarullah Khan.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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