DERA ISMAIL KHAN: The Pakistani Taliban defied an ongoing military offensive and kidnapped 23 tribesmen who had met with the army chief during a recent trip to the area, intelligence officials, tribal elders and the militants' spokesman said.
The kidnappings further threaten the government's shaky effort to convince hundreds of thousands of displaced members of the Mehsud tribe that the Taliban are defeated and that it is safe to return to their homes in South Waziristan.
Taliban courts in South Waziristan are deciding how to punish the men and boys being held, and should have a "verdict" within days, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told The Associated Press.
"This is a warning to the tribal people to not come to the area because we are still present in South Waziristan," Tariq said via phone. He claimed the militants had seven Taliban courts functioning in South Waziristan, as well as 22 offices.
The army sent some 30,000 soldiers in an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan more than a year ago, and it claims to have killed hundreds of insurgents while bringing most of the conflict zone not far from the Afghan border under control.
The fighting forced some 400,000 civilians to flee the region, and many are now staying in Dera Ismail Khan and other cities near the tribal belt. Despite ongoing efforts by the military to get the civilians to go home, the numbers returning have been small.
Those resisting cite Taliban threats. Mehsud elders said the kidnappings are a sign that the militants are angry with the tribe.
"On one side, the government says peace is established in South Waziristan, and on the other our tribesmen are being kidnapped," said Maulana Esamuddin Mehsud, one of two Mehsud tribal leaders who said they learned of the kidnappings from the victims' relatives.
The 23, who include several students, were among those attending functions with Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in the Ladha and Makeen areas of South Waziristan on Dec. 7. Kayani was visiting some development projects designed to show progress, including schools.
The circumstances surrounding the capture of the 23 were murky.
According to local intelligence officials, the militants lured the victims to a town on the border of South and North Waziristan tribal regions, with promises of food rations. They then grabbed the unsuspecting tribesmen.
Those kidnapped hailed from different families in various parts of South Waziristan are believed to have stayed in South Waziristan or in North Waziristan throughout the fighting. All are part of the Mehsud tribe, whose members also dominate the Pakistani Taliban's upper ranks.
Intelligence officials in Pakistan nearly always speak on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media on the record.
Attempts to reach relatives of the captives were not immediately successful Monday. The army's spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.