The Taliban in North Waziristan carried out a brazen daylight operation that resulted in the kidnapping of hundreds of military cadets and their teachers as they traveled from a college in North Waziristan.
A large Taliban force armed with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and assault rifles halted the convoy of 29 minibuses traveling from the Ramzak Cadet College to the settled district of Bannu. The cadets were traveling under the protection of Pakistani security forces, however there are no reports of fighting.
Between 300 to 400 cadets, teachers, and college staffers were kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location. One bus driver and more than 40 students are reported to have escaped the Taliban hijacking.
“[A] Driver of one of the vehicles managed to escape and students reported to us that their colleagues have been kidnapped by Taliban,” a police official in Bakka Khel told Reuters. The convoy is said to have been ambushed near Bakka Khel.
The cadets and staff left the college after being threatened by the Taliban, according to reports.
Mirza Muhammad Jihadi, the advisor to the prime minister on tribal affairs, confirmed the hijacking and kidnapping, and said negotiations are underway to secure the release of the captive cadets and teachers.
No Taliban group has taken credit
The kidnapping took place in a region that is influenced by North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar and South Waziristan and overall Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Both Taliban warlords command tens of thousands of able fighters, and both have repelled government offensives in their respective tribal areas.
Earlier this year, Baitullah, Bahadar, and South Waziristan commander Mullah Nazir put aside tribal differences and created the Council of United Mujahideen. The Taliban leaders “united according to the wishes of Mujahideen leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” stated a pamphlet released by the group announcing its formation. The new Taliban alliance said it openly supports Omar and bin Laden in their war against the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The group vowed to pool resources to halt any military operation in the Waziristan region.
In August of 2007, Baitullah’s forces were able to pull off the brazen capture of an entire company of regular Army troops as they moved through his tribal areas. More than 300 soldiers surrendered without a fight after being surrounded and outgunned by a large Taliban force. The military initially denied that the company had been captured, but later was forced to concede after the soldiers were paraded in front of the international media.
The Taliban have been attacking military outposts and convoys in North and South Waziristan since the government launched the military operation against Mullah Fazlullah’s forces in the northern Malakand Division. Just yesterday more than 25 Taliban fighters and seven troops were killed after the Taliban attacked a Frontier Corps camp and a military convoy in South Waziristan [see LWJ report, Taliban attack paramilitary camp in South Waziristan].
The military has honored a ceasefire it signed with the Taliban during late 2007 and early 2008, but has responded to Taliban attacks with artillery and airstrikes. The military and President Asif Ali Zardari have denied that a military operation is being planned in Waziristan, but the recent clashes have frightened Mehsud tribesmen, some of whom are fleeing the region.
Outside the tribal areas, security forces have been targeting Taliban leaders loyal to Baitullah. Just yesterday police detained Asmatullah, a deputy of Baitullah, along with 39 other Taliban fighters in the Punjab district of Mianwali. Baitullah had ordered Asmatullah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Qari Mohammed Zafar to mine the region in an effort to slow any potential military offensive in South Waziristan.
The capture of the cadets may be part of an effort to secure the release of the Taliban leaders and fighters currently in custody. In the past, the government has exchanged Taliban prisoners for captive soldiers, policemen, and government officials.