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Pakistan militants free 300 schoolchildren

Heavily armed militants took about 300 children hostage at a school in Pakistan on Monday but freed them after tense negotiations with tribal elders, the Interior Ministry said.

Rebels armed with rocket launchers holed up at the school in the remote village of Bannu in North West Frontier Province after a failed attempt to abduct a local official that left one of their men dead.

Police surrounded the building while tribesmen negotiated with the insurgents, who had demanded safe passage in exchange for the release of the pupils, aged between eight and 12.

”They have surrendered themselves to the local jirga [tribal council] along with their weapons and released the children,” ministry spokesperson Brigadier Javed Cheema said after the seven-hour drama ended.

Asked if Pakistani authorities had agreed to the militants’ demands, Cheema said: ”They are still with the jirga and it is now between the jirga and local police.”

State television said the government had agreed to their demands to go free.

Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said earlier that seven ”terrorists” had taken between 200 and 250 children hostage.

Police also said they had received orders to pull back from the building.

”We have received a radio message that we should withdraw and my information is that negotiations have been successful,” village police chief Mohammad Ayub said by telephone.

The incident comes amid a tide of violence in Pakistan since the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto that has raised fears for the country’s stability ahead of key elections on February 18.

The school is near the north-western border with Afghanistan, where Pakistani forces have been locked in fierce fighting with al-Qaeda and Taliban Islamist militants for the past three weeks.

Police said the militants holed up at the school, about 250km west of Islamabad, after they abducted a health worker in the village and drove off with him, police said.

Police gave chase and in the ensuing shoot-out one militant was killed and a policeman was wounded, while the medic escaped, senior local police official Shakirullah, who goes by one name, said.

District police chief Dar Ali Khattak said the militants had ”all types of weapons like rocket launchers and grenades”.

Militants in north-west Pakistan have increasingly resorted to kidnappings and hostage-takings to press their demands for Islamic Sharia law and an end to military operations in the region.

Pakistani forces on Sunday said they had seized control from the militants of a key road tunnel that links the district where the school is located to the main north-western city of Peshawar.

But a soldier died in fierce fighting that continued on Monday in the nearby tribal area of South Waziristan, where Pakistani officials say the key suspect in the murder of opposition leader Bhutto is hiding out.

Islamist warlord Baitullah Meshud denies any involvement in her killing but fighting in his mountainous fiefdom has escalated since the killing of Bhutto on December 27. — AFP



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