PESHAWAR, March 27: Tribal militants in the rugged South Waziristan tribal region have agreed to free over a dozen paramilitary hostages, a senior official told Dawn.
The agreement to free the hostages came about at a meeting at Dana near Khumrang, about 22 km to the northwest of regional headquarters, Wana, between leaders of the militant group and a jirga of the Zalikhel tribal elders on Saturday.
The official, confirming the agreement, said the militants had agreed to let the hostages go without putting up any preconditions.
A tribal elder had earlier said the militants had asked for lifting of the cordon around 15 square km radius area that included Kaloosha and Shin Warsak before they could agree to let the hostages go.
The militants are holding 12 paramilitary soldiers and two tehsildars, junior officers of the local administration in South Waziristan, hostages following a bloody operation in the area on March 16.
The clashes had left 15 paramilitary soldiers dead and scores wounded. A spokesperson for the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) on Saturday quoting those caught during the operation, put the total number of casualties amongst the militants at over 60.
The ISPR statement released from Rawalpindi quoting sources confirmed that Tahir Yaldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was wounded in the Kaloosha-II operation and was now hiding somewhere.
Official sources told Dawn Tahir alias Farooq, who had been sentenced to death in absentia in the central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan for plotting to overthrow the government of President Karimov, had been seen in the Kaloosha-Shin Warsak area prior to the operation.
These sources said that the high-level target that President Musharraf had talked about could well have been the IMU leader.
Dawn has obtained a compact disc that shows the IMU leader wearing the typical Wazir tribe's turban and dressed in Shalwar Qameez delivering sermons to his Uzbek fighters. The video aptly titled 'The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan' is in originally in Uzbek language but has been dubbed in Pushto.
Residents in the area now acknowledge that Tahir Yaldashev, whose IMU was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in Sept, 2002, had been around for quite some time and making fiery speeches in mosques preaching Jihad to local tribesmen.
"Our reports indicate that it was actually Tahir and not Zawahiri, who was driving in the bullet-proof double-cabin pick- up truck that subsequently hit a wall and was later found abandoned", one official said.
"We believe that he has been wounded and we are looking for him", said another official, requesting he not be named.
South Waziristan administrator Muhammad Azam Khan said that he had been informed by the Zalikhel tribe that the militants had agreed to free 12 of the 14 hostages by Sunday noon.
The remaining hostages, he said, could be freed in a couple of days. The militants told the jirga that the hostages were being held in small groups and it would take them a day to gather them and hand them over.
It was not clear whether the authorities would lift the cordon around the targeted area but there were indications that an announcement could be made on Sunday morning when the Zalikhel tribesmen formally meet the administration.
Peshawar Corps Commander Lt-Gen Safdar Hussain had told Dawn that he wanted to wrap up the operation and lift the cordon around the targeted area by Saturday.
But it was clear on Saturday the government was using the cordon issue as a bargaining chip to pressure the militants to free the hostages.
"I will lift the cordon only when the militants will have freed the hostages," a senior military officer told Dawn.
But he insisted that over 10,000 regular troops and around 35000 paramilitary forces would remain stationed in South Waziristan.
"There is no going back", he said.
A tribal elder who had accompanied the jirga to Dana said Nek Muhammad and Sharif, two of the five most wanted tribesmen for harbouring and supporting foreign militants led the talks with them.
"We could see armed militants having taken positions on hill- tops. Clearly, they were well-prepared for any eventuality", he said, requesting he not be named.
Muhammad Azam Khan said the release of hostages was a litmus test for the Zalikhels. "If they prove themselves successful, we may announce certain steps to reward them. If they take one step, we are willing to take two," he said.
In Peshawar, a senior official told Dawn the government had put together a Rs91 million development package for South Waziristan that included the development of roads infrastructure, schools and health centres.
The government has also decided to set up an FM radio station in Wana which apart from providing entertainment programmes would also broadcast news and analysis.
South Waziristan, the largest of the seven tribal regions, at present does not receive Pakistani radio or television broadcasts.
"Peace and security is a prerequisite to any development package," the official insisted.
Meanwhile, Mehsud tribal elders are meeting in Spenkay Raghzai, about 10 km from Jandola, to formulate a strategy to catch those responsible for the ambush on an army supply convoy on March 22 and subsequent killing of 8 army hostages.
In Zam Cheena, near Angoor Adda, suspected militants fired on a military checkpoint past midnight. The local tribe of Gangikhel came to the rescue of the military post and fired at the militants, an official source said.
Son of a local tribal malik, Malik Hashim Khan Gangikhel, was killed in the shootout while the militants appeared to have suffered two casualties, the source said.