ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban militants ambushed a vehicle convoy Monday in Pakistan's wild Waziristan area, abducting dozens, possibly hundreds of students in an apparent bold new tactic ahead of an expected military offensive in the region.
The tally of the number of students kidnapped ranged hugely, with different officials putting the number snatched at anywhere from 40 to 400.
According to officials and eyewitnesses, about 30 minibuses carrying 500 boys and their teachers were travelling from a military-run boarding school in North Waziristan, in the tribal area. They were intercepted Monday by armed men who shot into the air and, according to some accounts, threatened to blow up the vehicles with grenades. Reports said that the militants were carrying rocket launchers, grenades and automatic rifles.
The kidnapping created a new crisis for U.S. ally Pakistan, with the possibility that the boys could be used as human shields. Many of the boys at the college are the children of army officers, making them even more valuable. The development came as Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, is scheduled to arrive in Pakistan on Wednesday.
The Pakistani army is preparing to launch an operation in Waziristan against Taliban militants, who almost completely control the area along the Afghanistan border.
Under the arcane law that governs the tribal area, the entire local tribe will be held responsible for the kidnapping, meaning that the onus is on them to negotiate with the kidnappers the release of the boys. The government has also sent in officials to talk to the abductors.
The students were being driven from Razmak, deep inside North Waziristan, close to the Afghanistan border, where they studied at Razmak Cadet College. They were heading east to the relative safety of Bannu, a city that lies just outside the tribal area. Just before they got to Bannu, they were ambushed at Bakka Khel, which is still inside the tribal territory.
"Twenty-seven vehicles set out (from Razmak), 20 have entered Bannu, or went back, while seven are missing," Iqbal Marwat, the police chief in Bannu, said in an interview. "We have called a jirga (meeting) of Bakka Khel elders under the territorial responsibility act."
About 14 passengers fit into each minibus.
According to a local security official in North Waziristan, the convoy set off after 3 p.m. local time, after the school decided suddenly to close early for the summer holiday because of the growing unrest in the area. He said that 15 of the vehicles already had passed the ambush point when the attackers struck at 7:30 p.m. Of the remaining minibuses, 11 managed to get away. He estimated that 50 to 60 students and staff were held from the remaining four buses.
Some of the confusion over number of students may be due to the fact that many of the buses escaped the ambush by driving back to Razmak but were counted as missing by the authorities in Bannu.
North Waziristan is under the control of warlord Gul Bahadur, who typically doesn't make trouble for the Pakistani authorities, unlike Baitullah Mehsud, who rules over much of South Waziristan. It's unclear which group took the boys, who could've been snatched by a criminal gang only loosely associated with the Taliban in an act carried out without Gul Bahadur's permission. A ransom demand could follow.
Beverly Giesbrecht, a Canadian journalist, was kidnapped in North Waziristan in November near the spot where the boys were taken. She's still being held, by Gul Bahadur's men, with her abductors having released videos showing her pleading for help.
Students who made it to Bannu told Pakistani news channels about life at Razmak Cadet College, describing it as a terrifying experience, with frequent rocket and gunfire around the school, and the Taliban frequently knocking out the electricity line.
One unidentified teenage boy told reporters in Bannu: "We want to study, to make something of ourselves, but all we have are blasts and missiles. We appeal to the governor (the top provincial official) to shift our school to a settled area," a district outside the tribal belt.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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