PESHAWAR/WANA/TANK, Aug 30: In a dramatic development, militants in the restive South Waziristan on Thursday seized over 100 security forces personnel after intercepting a military convoy in the Mehsud-dominated tribal area, officials and local authorities said.

Sources requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter told Dawn that militants intercepted a the convoy in Momi Karam area of Luddah subdivision, some 40km north of the agency’s headquarters, Wana.

The military convoy was on its way from Wana to Luddah when it was intercepted near Shpeshtoon in Momi Karam area.

A spokesman claiming to speak for the local Taliban told Dawn that they had taken the action because the army was moving into Mehsud territory.

He put the figure of security personnel being held hostage at more than 300 but official sources disputed the figure and said it was not more than 125.

These sources said the Taliban had also impounded 17 trucks which were carrying troops. Nine of the hostages were reported to be officers including a colonel, the sources said.

One official, however, claimed that the troops had not been detained and the convoy was stranded.

The incident has taken place a couple of days after release of 19 paramilitary soldiers and a political administration clerk by the Taliban in South Waziristan. Their release was brought about thanks to mediation by a jirga of Mehsud tribesmen.

A member of the jirga and tribal parliamentarian Senator Saleh Shah confirmed to Dawn that he had been approached by the authorities to help secure the release of the new hostages. But Saleh Shah hastened to add that the whole incident seemed to be the result of some misunderstanding and hoped that the issue would be resolved soon.

A government official in Peshawar acknowledged that militants were holding more than 100 security personnel hostage but he insisted that the incident was the result of some misunderstanding.

“It should not have happened. Perhaps there should have been more caution on part of our forces, particularly when there was already suspicion amongst the Mehsud tribal militants about troops’ movement into their area,” the official said.

“Probably, the militants thought that the troops were trying to enter their area and took the action,” he said.

The official, however, added that the Sara Rogha agreement of February 2005 with militants did not bar the military from moving around. “When there is suspicion, people tend to become a bit edgy and I think the militants overreacted,” the official maintained.

He put the total number of troops being held hostage at hundred plus but said that the incident occurred following a verbal argument between officers and some militants. “Not a single shot was fired.”

The official account was confirmed by locals who said the militants had stopped the military convoy at four places before taking the drastic action.

One security official said the militants had objected to the military’s attempt to establish pickets on the route of the convoy.

He said that contacts had been established with the Mehsud jirga to approach militant commander Baituallah Mehsud at the earliest and help secure the safe release of the security personnel.

“They have been told to establish immediate contact with the militant commander. On our part the Sara Rogha agreement is intact.”

AFP adds: Military spokesman Major-Gen Waheed Arshad said that the soldiers who were missing and feared kidnapped had been found safe. “We hope they will return to the camp tomorrow morning,” he said.— Alamgir Bhittani contributed to the report from Tank

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