Dozens Rescued in Taliban Kidnapping of Pakistani Students

By Griff Witte and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 2 -- Dozens of students and staff members from a Pakistani army preparatory school in North Waziristan were rescued Tuesday by the Pakistani army from Taliban insurgents who had kidnapped them hours earlier, local officials said.

The kidnapping marked one of the most brazen acts yet by insurgents here. The Taliban has increasingly used ransom payments as a way of funding its operations.

The insurgents were taking their captives to South Waziristan, where the Taliban has strongholds, when soldiers challenged them on a road and a clash erupted, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, told Reuters.

"Under cover of the firing, the militants escaped and we have recovered them all," Abbas said.

The number of hostages taken captive Monday has been difficult to pin down, with some saying hundreds were abducted after a roadside ambush by militants. Abbas said Tuesday that 80 had been freed.

The high school-age students and the staff members from Razmak Cadet College were headed out for summer vacation at the time of the abduction. Their bus convoy was on its way to the nearby district of Bannu when it was halted by masked men wielding assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, said a security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Of the approximately 30 buses that left the school, only two reached their destination, according to Iqbal Marwat, district police chief in Bannu. However, other officials in Bannu said most of the buses arrived safely.

The government-run school trains future army officers and has a reputation for accepting only the brightest students from the tribal regions and neighboring North-West Frontier Province. It caters to the sons of maliks, or tribal chiefs, many of whom have been killed or ousted by Taliban commanders who have upended the traditional tribal structure in Waziristan.

The government holds limited sway in the tribal areas, which line the border with Afghanistan and are officially semiautonomous, although in reality they have largely fallen into Taliban hands. North Waziristan is known as a primary base for both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The army has launched a massive campaign in the past month to retake the Swat Valley, another part of Pakistan that had been controlled by the Taliban. In recent days, the army has reported progress in Swat, claiming to have killed about 1,200 militants. The Taliban has vowed revenge for the offensive, which came after the collapse of a peace deal.

The abductions Monday came as U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke prepared to travel to Pakistan. He is expected to meet with some of the approximately 3 million Pakistanis who have been displaced by fighting between the Taliban and the army.

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