TANK, Aug 31: With the government appearing in disarray over the seizure of more than 150 soldiers in the restive South Waziristan tribal agency, militants on Friday seized in the Frontier Region’s Jandola area four vehicles along with five drivers. The vehicles were carrying rations for security forces.

Though the exact number of missing soldiers was yet to be confirmed, security officials put the number at 156.

However, tribal sources claimed that the number of security personnel held hostage was about 205, including 105 regular troops and 100 personnel of the Frontier Corps. A colonel, three majors and some captains were among the personnel seized by militants.

A jirga comprising parliamentarians and 35 Mehsud tribal elders left Wana for Laddah on Friday for talks with militants after meeting Political Agent Hussainzada Khan in Wana. Mr Khan along with Senator Salih Shah had rushed to Wana in a military helicopter to initiate the dialogue.

Political authorities, meanwhile, detained 20 Mehsud tribesmen in Jandola under the territorial responsibility clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulations to mount pressure on militants to free the security personnel.

Witnesses said the political authorities had initially apprehended 200 tribesmen from a passenger van at Kawar checkpoint near Mianja Fort but later took only 20 of them into custody.

A tribal elder claimed that only 20 militants were able to take hostage over 200 soldiers, 129 of whom were fully armed.

“It is difficult to believe that 200 soldiers surrendered,” he said while talking to Dawn. He said the administration had detained innocent people who were in fact fleeing the area for fear of militants.

Local people said the weather conditions were normal in the region and the government claims that the soldiers were stuck in the area due to bad weather was not correct.

Security experts believe that the kidnapping of such a large number of soldiers would affect the morale of security forces operating in the tribal region.

“So many security personnel getting captured without firing a shot affects the image of our forces in the country and also sends a negative signal to the international community,” a security analyst in Peshawar remarked.

The troops, it may be mentioned, were captured when a convoy going from Wana to its base in Laddah was intercepted in the Momi Karam area.

Sources said the militants had blocked the road and ordered troops to lay down their arms and surrender communication equipment. After disarming them, the militants divided the soldiers into small groups and took them to unknown places.

Director-General Inter Services Public Relation Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad avoided saying that the troops had been kidnapped. “Soldiers are with the local tribesmen somewhere in Laddah area. It cannot be termed as kidnapping,” he told Dawn.

He claimed that there had been some misunderstanding about the movement of troops in the area and a jirga had taken initiatives to bring the soldiers back to camp.

On Thursday, he had said that the soldiers had been stranded somewhere in the area due to inclement weather.

According to late-night reports, the jirga had reached Laddah and was likely to hold meetings with the militants on Saturday morning. —Staff correspondent Zulfiqar Ali contributed to the report