Gunmen took hostage up to 250 Pakistani schoolchildren
Tuesday, 29 January 2008

ISLAMABAD, Reuters -

Gunmen took hostage up to 250 Pakistani schoolchildren in the northwestern town of Bannu on Monday after taking refuge in the school following a clash with police, officials said. Violence has spread across Pakistan in recent months, seeping out of remote tribal regions that are sanctuaries for al Qaeda and Taliban militants and into cities and towns, raising fears about the stability of the nuclear-armed US ally.

The militants fled into the school in the town in North West Frontier Province and took the children hostage after a clash in which one militant was killed, police said. Police initially said about 25 children were in the school but Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said many more were being held. "There are 200 to 250 children in the school and about seven militants. The provincial government is negotiating with them," Nawaz told Reuters. A senior Bannu police official said tribal elders were trying to negotiate with the militants.

The gunmen were demanding safe passage out of the area, another police official said. Separately, the military said heavy fighting was going on in two areas of South Waziristan on the Afghan border. Security forces have this month been battling insurgents led by an al Qaeda-linked militant chief who the government said was behind the assassination last month of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

One soldier had been killed and nine wounded in the fighting on Monday, the military said. More than 150 militants and 20 soldiers have been killed in the South Waziristan fighting this month.

DECAPITATED POLICEMEN

In neighbouring North Waziristan, two soldiers were killed in a militant attack on a checkpost, while three policemen were killed in another attack in the Orakzai tribal region on Sunday night, intelligence officials said. Authorities also found the bodies of two decapitated policemen in the scenic Swat valley, also in North West Frontier Province on Sunday night, officials there said. Security forces began an offensive to clear hundreds of well-armed militants out of the valley in November.

Militant violence has surged since July, when the security forces stormed a radical Islamabad mosque where militants defying the government had amassed a large quantity of weapons. Hundreds of people have been killed in a wave of attacks, including many suicide bombings, since then. The United States, which is leading the battle against Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan, is concerned about increasing al Qaeda and Taliban efforts to destabilise Pakistan. But President Pervez Musharraf, who has ruled out allowing foreign troops to operate on Pakistani soil, has rebuffed US proposals to let the CIA have greater latitude in Pakistani tribal areas, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

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