Pakistani troops executed after botched crackdown

Effort to root out militants in tribal areas fails, puts pressure on Musharraf

March 27, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Eight Pakistani soldiers who had been taken hostage by militants in Pakistan's tribal areas have been executed, officials said yesterday, in the latest sign that the effort by Pakistan's government to flush foreign militants from the region has gone badly awry.

The operation has proved a demoralizing embarrassment for Pakistan's army, the country's most powerful institution. While several dozen militants have been killed, and nearly 200 taken prisoner, the government does not appear to have captured the high-profile targets that it claimed last week to have surrounded in a mud-walled compound.

At least 30 security personnel have been killed in the operation, according to government officials, along with at least a dozen civilians. Twelve paramilitary soldiers and two low-level government officials are still being held hostage separately.

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in the tribal areas, and resentment against the army is prompting fears that the violence could spread beyond South Waziristan, the area where the fighting has been concentrated.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is under increasing pressure to resolve the standoff. Islamist parties staged protests in cities throughout the country yesterday, while criticism of the operation has been rising in the news media and, more important, among former military officials - Musharraf's most important constituency. One of them, a former major-general, Anwar Sher, said yesterday, "Because of our inefficiency we lost many soldiers."

The news of the executions came along with confirmation that the voice on a tape broadcast on Thursday was that of Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's second in command. Pakistani officials had suggested last week that a "high-profile" target the militants were protecting could be Zawahri.

It is not clear whether the militant leader escaped through a network of tunnels emanating from the compound or whether he was never surrounded at all. But the tape, in which he calls for Muslims in Pakistan "to get rid of their government, which is working for Americans," can only increase the pressure on Musharraf. Pakistani officials have said that a similar message from Zawahri prefigured the two assassination attempts against him last December.

The eight soldiers were taken hostage Monday in an ambush of a supply convoy in Serwakai, about 20 miles east of Wana, the regional headquarters, in which 12 other soldiers were killed. Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultant, the director general of Inter Services Public Relations, said the eight soldiers appeared to have been killed a few days ago.

The administrator for South Waziristan, Muhammad Azam Khan, said that the bodies of the eight soldiers were first spotted by a woman fetching water in a mountainous region near Serwakai. The soldiers were in uniform with their hands tied behind their backs, according to Haji Muhammad Nawaz, an Abdullai Mehsud tribesman. An official who saw the bodies said they had been shot at close range.

Armed tribal volunteers from the Mehsud tribe turned the bodies over to the authorities, Sultant said. He would not specify what action, if any, the government would take in response.

Under the largest deployment of military and paramilitary forces in any tribal region since Pakistan's inception, about 5,000 paramilitary and regular army soldiers have been battling an estimated 400 to 500 local and foreign militants for 11 days in South Waziristan.

The operation was begun just days before U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Islamabad with the aim in part of securing greater cooperation in cracking down on militants using the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistani forces met unexpected resistance when they tried to flush out foreign militants, and events quickly escalated because of the belief that troops had surrounded Zawahri.

On Sunday the government had more or less called a halt to fighting in an effort to negotiate with tribal leaders for the surrender of militants and the release of hostages. But those efforts have so far failed, and the executions appear to have complicated matters further.

In recent days, Pakistani officials have begun conceding that most of the important targets likely slipped away through tunnels that offered not only a way out to the militants, but also cover to an army eager to scale back its pursuit of them. The corps commander in Peshawar, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, had said on Thursday that he planned to wind up the operation by today. "We have achieved our objective of destroying and denying sanctuary to militants," he said.

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