The Taliban released 30 security personnel shortly after they were captured during a battle in Swat on Wednesday. The policemen and Frontier Corps paramilitary troops were released shortly after they promised not to fight the Taliban.
The Pakistani security personnel were captured after a Taliban unit assaulted their outpost in the Barikot region in Swat, where the military had launched its third operation in two years to dislodge the extremists from control of the district. The police and troops surrendered after the Taliban mined the area around the checkpoint, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told CNN.
The Taliban then captured supply trucks laden with ammunition intended to resupply the government forces after they hit the minefield. The security personnel were briefly held and released only after they said they would no longer serve in the security forces, Khan told CNN.
The Pakistani military disputed the Taliban’s claims and said the forces surrendered only after expending their ammunition. The military also denied that the Frontier Corps was at the checkpoint, claiming it was manned only by policemen.
The military’s claims should be met with skepticism, however, as military spokesmen have been untruthful about similar incidents in the past. Two of the more blatant examples of the military’s less than forthcoming statements are related to Taliban attacks on Pakistani troops in South Waziristan during 2007 and 2008.
In August 2007, Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban forces in South Waziristan captured an entire company of about 300 Pakistani regular Army troops as they were patrolling through the tribal agency. The Pakistani military denied this and initially claimed the troops were merely sheltering in a valley due to bad weather after losing communications, but it was later confirmed that a company-sized unit driving in 17 vehicles was captured by Mehsud’s forces. After backtracking, the military claimed about 110 troops were captured. But after the Taliban displayed the soldiers to a BBC television crew, it was confirmed 300 troops were captured.
In another incident in January 2008, the Taliban overran the Saklatoi Fort in South Waziristan, but the military emphatically denied the reports. “Absolutely baseless and I reject this report,” Major General Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, said at the time. “I want to clarify that the Pakistan Army and the Frontier Corps personnel are still present in the fort.” Two days later, Abbas briefed the media on the military’s successful operation to retake the Saklatoi Fort.
Today’s capture and release of the Pakistani personnel comes as the military claimed that Taliban forces have taken heavy casualties in Swat. The military said 70 Taliban fighters were killed during operations throughout Swat on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3. Five policemen and three Frontier Corps troops were also killed during the fighting.
But the military has over-relied on air and artillery strikes, causing heavy civilian casualties and forcing locals to flee the region. An estimated 45,000 civilians have fled Swat over the past several days, Dawn reported. More than 300,000 civilians, or an estimated one-fifth of Swat’s population, have fled the region since the fighting began in late 2007.
“The unfortunate people of Swat have seen their near and dear ones slaughtered, hanged in main squares of Mingora and Matta, executed and tortured for no sin committed by them,” a displaced man told Dawn. “Both the Taliban and security forces are killing innocent people. We are migrating because there are no signs of peace in the near future.”
Khyber Pass remains closed
The Taliban destroyed or damaged ten NATO container trucks in the town of Landi Kotal in the tribal agency of Khyber. The trucks were torched as they were parked waiting for the Khyber Pass, the vital link between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to be reopened.
Yesterday the Taliban destroyed a strategic bridge in the Jamrud region, halting all traffic along the pass. The Taliban detonated one of three bombs placed under the bridge; the others failed to detonate. The Frontier Corps troops that were supposed to be guarding the bridge were absent at the time of the explosion. The Frontier Corps, which is raised from the local populations, is thought to be riddled with Taliban sympathizers and supporters.
The government is working to reroute the vehicles through a dried-up riverbed north of the bridge, but the work is not yet complete. There was no estimate given on when the bridge would be repaired.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.