Taliban Ambushes Pakistani Convoy, Seizes 100 Troops

By Griff Witte and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 31, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 30 -- In an audacious display of force, Taliban fighters on Thursday ambushed a convoy of military vehicles in a remote tribal area and took more than 100 Pakistani troops hostage, local officials said.

The convoy of more than a dozen vehicles was traveling between two towns in the South Waziristan area, near the Afghan border, when it was overtaken by fighters, officials said.

"Our group has surrounded and disarmed the convoy of Pakistani soldiers and they have been made hostages," said Zulfiqar Mehsud, a purported Taliban spokesman.

Mehsud, who said the troops had been taken to "our prisons," accused the government of violating a pledge not to send soldiers into the area. He said the Taliban had meticulously planned the ambush.

Local officials announced a jirga, or tribal assembly, for Friday to try to resolve the hostage standoff. Just two days ago, the same group that was believed responsible for Thursday's kidnappings freed 18 soldiers after a deal was brokered by tribal elders.

Across the border in Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Taliban turned over the last of the South Korean church volunteers seized by the group in mid-July. The release of the seven hostages came a day after 12 others were let go. Previously, two of the South Koreans were killed and two released.

The latest kidnappings in South Waziristan follow the collapse of peace deals there and in North Waziristan over the past two months. The agreements between extremists and the Pakistani government had been condemned by many analysts, and by U.S. officials, as capitulations that allowed fighters to use parts of the country to organize, train and plot attacks.

The unraveling of the deals has led to a spate of violence that has left at least 60 soldiers and 250 extremists dead.

The kidnappings Thursday came amid broader political turmoil in Pakistan, as the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has struggled to maintain power.

Musharraf and exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto are locked in tense negotiations over a possible power-sharing arrangement that would allow him to continue as president and her to return to Pakistan to try to win back her old job. Bhutto said Wednesday that Musharraf had agreed to retire from the army before standing for reelection this fall, though a Musharraf spokesman on Thursday denied that the president had made any decision.

Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, on Thursday provided additional details of his own planned return to Pakistan, saying he intends to come back Sept. 10. Unlike Bhutto, Sharif has ruled out any compromise with Musharraf.

Any deal, Sharif told reporters in London, "will only be strengthening the hands of a dictator, and we want to get rid of the dictatorship in Pakistan."

Sharif is attempting to capitalize on anti-Musharraf sentiment that has been building in Pakistan for the past six months, since the president's attempt to fire the nation's chief justice led to civil unrest.

Sharif also might win votes from Bhutto supporters who are disenchanted with her for negotiating a deal rather than pushing for Musharraf's ouster.

Sharif's return to Pakistan could be rocky. The government says if he does come back, he will be violating the terms of a pact he signed with Saudi officials in 2000 agreeing to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years.

Sharif had fled to Saudi Arabia to avoid a life prison term in Pakistan, and officials here have indicated that sentence might be reinstated if he tries to come back.

Ali reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company