x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Students rescued from Taliban

Pakistan's army launches an operation after negotiations led by tribal elders fail to persuade kidnappers to release entire group abducted on Monday.

Students and staff from the Razmak Cadet College arrive in Bannu after being rescued by the army early yesterday.
Students and staff from the Razmak Cadet College arrive in Bannu after being rescued by the army early yesterday.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistani security forces early yesterday rescued 80 students and staff of an army-run boarding school in North Waziristan from their Taliban captors, ending a terrifying first day to their summer holiday. The 71 students and nine teachers were travelling in eight minibuses at the tail of a 29-vehicle convoy carrying 518 students and staff from Razmak Cadet College to the north-west town of Bannu, local security officials said. Initial reports stated that the entire caravan had been taken hostage, which proved to be untrue.

Local police intercepted the group as the Taliban tried to move their captives from North to South Waziristan, both of which are known strongholds of the Taliban and al Qa'eda. Officials said tribal elders were called in to negotiate with the kidnappers throughout Monday night, securing the release of 30 students, but the talks then stalled, prompting army units to launch a dawn rescue operation, a military spokesman said.

"All the captives except one have been recovered in an army operation this morning at 5am," Major Gen Athar Abbas told the Associated Press. It was unclear whether the missing person was a student or a member of the college staff, including the school principal. The motive behind the kidnapping was unclear, but Major Gen Abbas surmised the militants were taking their hostages to neighbouring South Waziristan, a stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud, who heads the Pakistani Taliban.

Razmak Cadet College was set up for students from the impoverished tribal agencies and is particularly popular among families of serving and retired army officers. Although the college's title suggests otherwise, the students are taught a regular high school curriculum and are given the same basic military training as at all state school students in Pakistan. Despite recent violence between security forces and militants in the area, the student convoy departed from Razmak on Monday at around 2pm, travelling at high speed but without a security escort, relying only on a pledge of protection from the area's dominant Wazir tribe that dates back to the college's founding in the 1970s, residents said.

The minibuses exited North Waziristan without trouble, but were intercepted by a group of militants shortly after entering the Bakakhel Frontier Region. "They came in six vehicles; three were driven to the front of the convoy, three to the back. The convoy stopped, six militants got out of one vehicle at the front, boarded our bus and started asking us questions like 'Who are you?' and 'Where have you come from?'" said Saqib Khan Wazir, a 19-year-old student.

"We were all frozen with fear and really relieved when, after we told them we were students from the Wazir tribe, they let us go," he said speaking by telephone from his home in Dera Ismail Khan city. Asmatullah, a grade nine student, said the militants conducted a leisurely search of the vehicle he was in. "They did not say anything but from the look on their faces, they were thinking about what to do next. It was as if they were looking for an excuse to kidnap us," he said in an interview from Bannu.

The students said the drivers of the rented minibuses were afraid of going any further along the road and had pulled up at the next petrol pump and ordered the students to disembark. It was only when it started to get dark that they headed off again. Students said it was not until they arrived in Bannu that a teacher, Abbas Khan, told them that some of the vehicles from the convoy had gone missing. thussain@thenational.ae