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Prisoner swap ahead of peace deal with militants

May 14, 2008

TANK, May 13: The government and South Waziristan militants prepared on Tuesday for a reported prisoner swap as part of efforts for a formal peace agreement.

Sources said that about 31 suspected militants had been airlifted from the Dera Ismail Khan prison and detention centres in Wana and brought to Jandola.

It is learnt that a verbal agreement has already been reached but it was not being made public due to sensitivities involved.

“I think a verbal agreement is there already. It has to be formalised but it is not being made public for obvious reasons,” the source said.

An official, however, claimed that a formal agreement could come about in three to four days.

A prisoners’ swap was expected to take place in Tiarza in the Mehsud-dominated South Waziristan, the sources said.

Six of the prisoners were brought from Dera Ismail Khan, 19 were held in the Zari Noor brigade headquarters while another two were under detention in Jandola, the sources said.

This correspondent has names of a few of those likely to be released sometimes on Tuesday night or on Wednesday morning but it was not clear who they actually were and whether they were involved in militant activities.

The official said that all of them were Mehsuds from Khesoro area.

“They are all nobodies, riff-raffs, mostly foot soldiers,” the official said.

A military spokesman denied that any helicopter had been used to airlift the detainees.

He also denied that the military was involved in any prisoner exchange.

“What is happening is that locals who may have been detained on suspicion without any strong evidence are being considered for release by the political authorities or Fata administration. But the military is not involved,” Maj-Gen Athar Abbas told Dawn on phone.

Significantly, however, the Fata administration also did not have any information about any plan to release prisoners.

A Fata administration official expressed ignorance about any such development.

“I am as unaware about this as probably you are,” the official said.

It may be mentioned that none of the names of the about-to-be-released prisoners figured on the list of “innocents” furnished by Mehsud tribesmen to the political authorities.

It is being speculated that militant commander Baitullah Mehsud would oblige the tribal interlocutors by freeing some security personnel and government functionaries.

Militant spokesman Maulvi Omar had in the past claimed that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had between 80 to 90 security personnel and government officials in its custody.

Meanwhile, official sources said that the military had started “thinning down” its forces from Kotkai and Spinkay Raghzay in the Mehsud part of South Waziristan.

“This is a good development and there may be some more good news,” the official said.He expressed the hope that a formal agreement could be reached in a few days.

But commenting on some media reports about army’s withdrawal from South Waziristan, Maj-Gen Abbas said that pulling out troops from the agency would be the decision of the government depending on the outcome of negotiations with tribes.

He, however, acknowledged that in order to facilitate the return of displaced persons, the military had decided to readjust present positions and open various roads linking different villages and townships.