Taliban militants freed more than 40 students, teachers and staff from an army-run school in North Waziristan. The hostages were heldfor three days in revenge for a military offensive in the northwestern Swat valley.
AFP - Taliban militants on Thursday freed all remaining Pakistani staff and students from an army-run boarding school who were snatched three days ago, drawing a line under the brazen mass abduction.
The more than 40 students and two staff from a college in the tribal area of North Waziristan, where Washington says Al-Qaeda are plotting attacks on the West, were released to tribal elders, officials and the Taliban said.
Masked gunmen had ambushed a convoy of about 30 vehicles carrying staff and students from Razmak in North Waziristan home at the start of the summer holidays, and busloads of people were abducted on Monday, officials said.
Pakistan's military said Tuesday that soldiers recovered 80 of the students and staff. The army initially said that everyone had been rescued, but school officials later said around 45 students and two teachers were unaccounted for.
"Forty-six students and two teachers are now in the custody of security forces in Razmak. They are being transported to Bannu," said chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.
Bannu lies in the North West Frontier Province, which unlike the wild tribal areas of Pakistan falls under direct government control.
"Our information is that all have been released, including two staff and 46 students," Kamran Zeb, a government official in the area, told AFP.
A commander in Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Taliban and spokesman for the country's most wanted militant, Baitullah Mehsud who has a five-million-dollar US reward on his head, confirmed their release.
"We have released them in the interest of peace in the region. We accepted the request of the tribal jirga (council)," Hakimullah Mehsud told AFP by telephone.
"I have also received information that all have been released. They have not yet arrived here," Abbas Rind, chief of administration in Bannu, told AFP.
Security forces had earlier found eight abandoned vehicles, their drivers and students' luggage in a village in North Waziristan, but the militants and their captives had been nowhere to be seen, officials said.
Local authorities had threatened a military raid to rescue the captives unless they were handed over peacefully, as parents of the missing pupils demonstrated in Bannu and lambasted the government's handling of the crisis.
"Nobody is telling me where my child is. I beg the militants to please set free the innocent students," one father told reporters.
Another anguished parent said: "The government is responsible for this kidnapping. Why did they choose a bad time for travelling?"
Although it was uncertain how many people were kidnapped, the incident in which masked Taliban gunmen held up the convoy sparked growing fears of spiralling rebel attacks to avenge a military offensive in the northwest.
The military campaign, now in its sixth week, was launched when Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad, flouting a deal to put three million people under sharia law in exchange for peace.
More than 80 people have been killed in bomb blasts across the country since the operation began on April 26.
The United States, which has strongly backed the operation, sent special envoy Richard Holbrooke to Pakistan where he was meeting some of the 2.4 million people displaced by the conflict in camps on Thursday.
Date created : 2009-06-04