PESHAWAR/TANK, Sept 3: Militants holding hundreds of soldiers hostage have demanded withdrawal of forces from the restive South Waziristan tribal region and release of 15 alleged would-be suicide bombers in government custody, an official told Dawn.

“The militants have made certain demands but it does not mean that we will accept them. It will be managed,” the official said.

He acknowledged that the Taliban were holding close to 300 army and paramilitary personnel, including some senior officers.

Maulana Esamuddin, a member of the Mehsud tribal jirga, endorsed the official’s statement and said the authorities had asked them to help secure the release of 270 troops.

Military spokesman Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad, who had till now been denying that the soldiers had been kidnapped, claiming that they were missing, acknowledged that they were being held hostage.

The official told Dawn in Peshawar that the militants had raised the issue of the military moving hundreds of troops along with two truckloads of ration and expressed apprehensions that the government was contemplating some sort of military action in violation of the February, 2005, Sararogha peace agreement.

“What has happened is inexplicable,” the official said, referring to the kidnapping of the soldiers by militants last week.

The authorities are reported to have backed down and released about 100 Mehsud tribesmen rounded up under the collective responsibility clause of the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation, after militants threatened to kill the captive soldiers one by one.

But the official said the Mehsud tribesmen had been freed as a goodwill gesture to help the jirga negotiate with the militants holding the soldiers.

The authorities had made the arrests to strengthen their bargaining position in dealing with the Mehsud militants and pressurise them into releasing the hostages.

“All the tribesmen have been released and the road has been reopened,” the official said.

Senator Salih Shah, a key member of the tribal jirga, who had earlier negotiated the release of 19 paramilitary soldiers, confirmed to Dawn that the militants had demanded withdrawal of military from the Mehsud area and release of their comrades.

The jirga has been shuttling back and forth between the militants and the authorities for three days but has so far been unable to make any headway.

Officials who spoke to Dawn were optimistic that the release of the soldiers would come about but cautioned that it might take a few more days.

“It’s not a hopeless situation. There are channels of communication open with the militants and that’s important. But the release (of the soldiers) may take a few days,” said one official.

The military spokesman said all steps would be taken to ensure security in the area and safety of the troops.

He said the militants might have made some demands but a tribal jirga was negotiating to defuse tension and ensure safety of the soldiers.

Alamgir Bitani contributed to this report from Tank

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