Talks Underway to Free Over 100 Pakistani Soldiers Held by Militants

Tribal elders were in talks with Islamic militants in an effort to secure the release of more than 120 Pakistani soldiers seized by insurgents near the Afghan border, officials said Friday.

A militant who claimed responsibility for the reported hostage-taking confirmed the talks, but said no decision had been made on whether to release the soldiers.

The fact that insurgents were apparently able to take so many soldiers hostage is an embarrassment for the military, which offered varying accounts of why such a large force did not make its way to its destination.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad initially said the soldiers, who lost contact with their base on Thursday, had become stuck because of bad weather. But on Friday he said they were trapped in an area where there was fighting between pro-government tribesmen and militants.

He denied reports that the 120 soldiers had been kidnapped or that they were ever missing. "This is not correct," he told The Associated Press, declining to provide further details.

The Pakistani troops had been traveling in a 16-vehicle convoy providing security for trucks hauling food in the South Waziristan tribal area when bad weather forced them to stop and set up camp, an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of policy.

The soldiers -- who had been traveling between South Waziristan's main town, Wana, and Ladha, another town in the area -- were surrounded and captured by Islamic militants who apparently believed the troops were conducting a military operation against them, the official said.

No fighting took place, said a senior army officer who also spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.

Tribal elders intervened at the request of Pakistani authorities to free the soldiers.

"This misunderstanding has been removed," the intelligence official said. "The missing soldiers have been traced and they are safe and will return to their base soon."

But a militant leader, who claimed his men seized the soldiers, told AP they were still holding nearly 300 troops.

"About 300 soldiers were present in our areas. We captured them, snatched their weapons and later shifted them to different places," he said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Speaking by mobile telephone from an undisclosed location, he confirmed that elders had contacted his group about freeing the soldiers, but said, "We have taken no decision to free the soldiers."

Arshad denied the militants' claim that they were holding nearly 300 soldiers.

The statements could not be independently verified because the area is remote and dangerous.

The incident came two days after militants freed 18 soldiers and a Pakistani government official who were kidnapped earlier this month.

The South Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan has seen a spike in attacks blamed on Islamic militants in recent weeks.

The rising violence comes amid increased U.S. pressure on Pakistan's Washington-backed leader, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to do more to crack down on militants near the frontier, where a recent American intelligence report suggested al-Qaida may be regrouping.

Meanwhile, dozens of Islamic militants attacked a northwest Pakistan military checkpoint before dawn Friday, killing at least two soldiers and wounding six others, police said.

The attack happened in the Swat Valley village of Gul Bagh, about 150 miles northeast of Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, said Mohammed Hafeez, the region's police chief.

As the injured and dead soldiers were being transported to a hospital, a car bomb went off near a police vehicle escorting the ambulances and killed a bystander, said Mohammed Khan, another area police official. Authorities were trying to determine whether it was a suicide attack.