WANA, Oct 11: The government on Monday offered to consider 'genuine' demands of militants in the volatile South Waziristan region if they released the two Chinese engineers they had kidnapped last week.
The offer was made as militants set two deadlines to execute the hostages if the government did not accept their demands. Both the deadlines, however, passed without any action from the militants.
Head of security for tribal areas, Brig Mehmood Shah, told a press briefing that the government was prepared to consider genuine demands of the militants in return for the release of the two hostages.
""We are prepared to consider their genuine demands but those demands should be doable," Brig Shah later told Dawn by phone from Tank. He denied the kidnappers had made any demands. "So far they have not made any demands. They had asked to be allowed to go along with the Chinese hostages. But we said that we are willing to give the militants a safe passage but for that they would have to leave the Chinese behind. The militants have refused to take the safe passage offer," Brig Shah said.
Militant commander Abdullah Mehsud had also said that he would make demands only when the hostages were with him. "It is still premature," he had told a group of tribal journalists in his mountain hide-out.
Governor NWFP, Lt-Gen (retd) Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, however, added a twist to the story by telling the PTV that the militants had made certain demands which were not acceptable. "The militants will squarely be responsible for any harm to the Chinese as a result of their unacceptable demands," the governor said.
Senior government and security officials, however, insist that the militants and their commander have not made any demand. Government officials locked in negotiations with the Mehsud tribesmen and indirect negotiations with militants had some tense moments earlier in the day when the kidnappers announced to execute the first Chinese hostage at 12 noon.
The deadline triggered a flurry of activities and negotiations and the militants extended the deadline till 4pm. The government, in the meantime, convened a grand jirga of the Mehsud tribe at around 1:30pm to discuss the militants' ultimatum to execute the Chinese captives.
"We told the Mehsuds that the government held them directly responsible for the safety of the Chinese hostages," Brig Shah said. At 4pm, the Mehsud tribesmen agreed to deliver a warning to Abdullah Mehsud to restrain his comrades from harming the Chinese engineers.
Official sources said that the warning had been delivered to the former Guantanamo prisoner through his long-range cordless phone in Barwand in the South Waziristan region.
"The Mehsud tribesmen warned Abdullah that he would be personally held responsible for any wrong action he takes against the Chinese that could entail ramifications for the entire tribe," the official said.
Significantly, the Mehsud tribe had earlier in the jirga expressed its inability to handle the issue. "We are helpless. There is nothing we can do. We hold no sway over the militants. They don't listen to us," the tribal elders said at the jirga.
But, eyewitnesses and officials said that the Mehsuds had changed their mind when the administration threatened to evict the tribesmen from Tank district and banish them to South Waziristan. "The threat apparently worked and the tribal elders agreed to make one more attempt," the witnesses said.
It was then that the tribal elders spoke to Abdullah Mehsud and warned him of consequences if the Chinese hostages were harmed. They also informed the militant commander that a tribal jirga would come and talk to him directly today (Tuesday) in his native Barwand village to resolve the issue.
It was announced that the Mehsud tribesmen would close their shops in Tank and proceed to Barwand. A fine of Rs10,000 would be imposed on those who did not close their shops and joined the jirga to Barwand.
The two Chinese engineers working for the Sino Hydro Company were kidnapped along with their Pakistani driver and a constable by five militants on Saturday while on their way to work at the construction site of the Gomal Zam dam.
The militants were later cornered in an isolated mud-house in Chag Malai near Jandola by security forces. The militants are reported to have strapped explosives around their bodies and have threatened to blow themselves up along with the hostages if attacked or if any attempt was made to rescue the hostages.
Government officials said they were still considering various options including the use of force to rescue the hostages. "The base line is the safety of Chinese engineers," a senior government official said. But he hastened to add that the use of force was the last option. "We will cross the bridge when we get there. The bridge is still too far," the official remarked.
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