ISLAMABAD // Taliban militants armed with rockets, grenades and automatic weapons abducted at least 400 students, staff and relatives driving away from a boy's school in a north-west Pakistani tribal region today, police and a witness said. The brazen abduction came amid rising militant violence in Pakistan's tribal belt - actions the military said are partly aimed at distracting it from its offensive against the Taliban in the nearby Swat Valley. Police were negotiating with the Taliban for the release of the captives taken in North Waziristan, said Mirza Mohammad Jihadi, an adviser to the prime minister.
He said around 500 people were taken and that they were being held in the Bakka Khel area. Details were still emerging late today about what happened, and much was murky. Police official Meer Sardar said the abduction occurred about 30km 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, Mr 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 holiday had started.
Around 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 alleged militants in their own vehicles, according to a staff member at the school who was among those who escaped. The vehicle he was travelling in happened to be behind a lorry on the road, and it was less visible, so the driver slipped away. He requested anonymity out of fear of Taliban reprisal but said the school's principal was among those abducted. The staffer said the assailants carried rockets, Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and other weapons. He estimated around 400 captives were involved.
It was unclear how many were students, though they 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. There were also reports today that at least one other bus managed to get away and reach a police station. Jihadi said at least 29 students escaped, apparently in addition to the 17 at Sardar's police station in the Meeran area.
North and South Waziristan are major al Qa'eda 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 today, militants fired rockets at troops, killing two. The fresh fighting is fuelling speculation that a month after reigniting 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," Maj Gen Abbas said. 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 US 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 Qa'eda 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 rumoured hideouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahri. Asked about a time frame for clearing the area, Maj Gen 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 centre. But many of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley are believed to have fled to the hillsides, and Maj Gen Abbas said clearing those rural areas could require months more work. 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 three million people displaced by the fighting so far. Already, large numbers of families have begun leaving South Waziristan amid rumours 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.
Today, 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. * AP