ISLAMABAD – Taliban militants ambushed a convoy of vehicles carrying at least 400 students, staff and relatives from a boys' school Monday, taking dozens — possibly hundreds — captive in northwestern Pakistan, officials said.
Police were negotiating for the captives' release following the brazen abduction — part of a string of militant actions in Pakistan's tribal belt that the army believes is partly aimed at distracting the military from its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. The militants were said to be armed with rockets, grenades and automatic weapons.
Details were still emerging early Tuesday about what exactly happened in North Waziristan. Originally as many as 500 people were believed to have been abducted, but about 200 students were later found to be safe.
Police official Meer Sardar said the abduction occurred about 20 miles from Razmak Cadet College. The victims were leaving the school area after they were warned to get out in a phone call from a man they believed to be a political official, Sardar said, citing accounts from a group of 17 who managed to escape.
Local media, however, reported that the group was leaving because their school vacation had started.
About 30 buses, cars and other vehicles were carrying the students, staff and others when they were stopped along the road by a large group of gunmen in their own vehicles, according to a school employee who was among those who escaped. He said the vehicle he was riding in happened to be behind a truck on the road and thus it was less visible and able to slip away unnoticed.
The employee requested anonymity out of fear of Taliban reprisal and said the school's principal was among those abducted. The staffer said the assailants carried rockets, Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and other weapons. He estimated about 400 captives were initially involved.
Police were negotiating with the Taliban via tribal elders for the hostages' release, said Mirza Mohammad Jihadi, an adviser to the prime minister. He said about 500 people were taken and that they were being held in the Bakka Khel area.
Around midnight, Javed Alam, a school vice principal, said about 200 of the students who had apparently evaded capture were tracked down at their homes. The principal was missing and his cell phone was turned off, Alam said.
Students made up the majority of the group. Cadet colleges in Pakistan are usually run by retired military officers and educate teenagers. They also typically provide room and board.
Clashes in the past three days in South Waziristan have killed at least 25 militants and nine soldiers. In the latest attack, reported by the army Monday, militants fired rockets at troops, killing two.
The fresh fighting is fueling speculation that a month after re-igniting its battle against Taliban militants in Swat, the military will widen the offensive to South Waziristan. But army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that for now, troops on the ground were simply reacting to attacks, not opening a new front.
"This is all to divert attention," from the Swat fighting, Abbas said.
With its hands full in Swat, opening a front in South Waziristan now would be risky for the military.
Known for its harsh terrain, reticent tribes and porous border with Afghanistan, as well as its history of limited federal government oversight, South Waziristan would likely be a tougher test for Pakistan's armed forces than Swat. The region also is the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
However, the U.S. and other Western nations who have praised Pakistan's tough tactics in Swat would likely want to see South Waziristan cleared of militants. It's the tribal regions, after all, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have their key bases from which they plan attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.
Asked about a timeframe for clearing the area, Abbas simply replied, "A plan to go or not to go into South Waziristan — shouldn't that be a highly classified matter?"
The army spokesman said major towns and cities in the Swat Valley will likely be cleared of Taliban fighters in a matter of days. The military has already recaptured Mingora, Swat's main urban center. But many of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley are believed to have fled to the hills, and Abbas said clearing those rural areas could take months.
One other problem with tackling South Waziristan is that it would exacerbate an already massive humanitarian challenge facing the country: up to 3 million people displaced by the fighting. Already, large numbers of families have begun leaving South Waziristan amid rumors of an imminent operation.
Journalists have limited access to the tribal belt and Swat, making it difficult to independently verify information from the Pakistani military or other sources.
Militants, including Mehsud loyalists, have threatened and carried out revenge attacks from the Swat operation in major Pakistani cities, including an assault on police and intelligence agency offices in the eastern city of Lahore that left 30 dead.