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Dozens of students and staff members of a military college who were kidnapped by the Taliban in North Waziristan, a tribal region in the northwest of Pakistan, were freed in a military operation on Tuesday, a day after they were taken hostage.
A convoy of about 30 buses carrying students and teachers of Cadet College Razmak was ambushed Monday by armed militants in the Bakkakhel Frontier region in Bannu, a province near Afghanistan. (For a map of the region, click here.) While the captors were transferring their hostages to a new location Tuesday, they were intercepted by the Pakistani Army.
The Pakistani Army said that 79 or 80 students and staff members were rescued. Earlier on Tuesday, some reports cited the number of hostages to be as high as 500.
According to the Pakistani English-language daily Dawn, the Army rescued almost all the Cadet College Razmak hostages while they were being transported to another tribal district.
All except one of the kidnapped students and staff members of Cadet College Razmak were recovered in a military operation, the Inter Services Public Relations said on Tuesday....
According to [military spokesman] Maj. Gen. Abbas, Razmak lies on the route to South Waziristan, where militant still have a stronghold, where the militants were planning to take the kidnapped students. Abbas added that the military anticipated this plan of action and launched an operation on the route leading to South Waziristan.
The resulting firefight helped army overcome the militants and recover the students, he told DawnNews.
"We tried to secure the release through negotiation. After that, we were compelled to launch a military operation," a military spokesman said in Peshawar.
No soldiers or civilian casualties were reported in the sting operation.
Tribal elders and government officials had been locked in talks overnight on efforts to secure the release of the students and staff.
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 convoy was accompanied by a local Taliban group for protection, but around 5 p.m., when the convoy reached a checkpoint at a place called Khajuri, that group left and armed men with another Taliban group approached, [an employee of the college] said.
He said four armed men waved over their minivan and got on board, arguing with the driver. When they began asking men to leave the van, women began to weep, he said, and the gunmen ultimately let the van go.
They reached the town of Bannu, the destination for the convoy, but only 7 other vehicles had made it, leaving about 20 unaccounted for.
According to Dawn, the Taliban commander in the tribal district of North Waziristan, who had promised the students safe passage, could be complicit in the kidnapping.
Gul Bahadur, leader of the Ittehad-i-Shura Mujahideen, North Waziristan, has wide influence in Bakkakhel and some officials believe that the kidnapping could not have taken place without his blessing.
Even after 79 students and staff members have been recovered, it remains unclear how many people were kidnapped by the militants. Quoting officials, some news agencies cited the number to be as high as 500. The Britain-based newspaper The Daily Telegraph reports that conflicting statistics are being quoted by security officials.
Iqbal Marwat, Bannu's police chief, said that Taliban had seized up to 400 people in 28 vehicles but that cores had escaped.
The vice principal of the college, Javed Alam, said about 200 had managed to flee from their captors and had arrived at Bannu.
Maj Gen Abbas said 80 students and staff had been recovered.
According to the BBC, violent incidents along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are increasing in number. Although the Pakistani Army has not launched a military offensive in South Waziristan, there are reports that the region will be targeted soon.
There has been a rise in violent incidents in recent days in the tribal areas next to the Afghan border.
The BBC's Chris Morris in Islamabad says officials believe militants are trying to divert attention away from a major military offensive in the Swat valley.
Fears of attacks by militants have increased after a military offensive against the Taliban in parts of the north-west.