SWAT, Pakistan – Islamic militants showed off 48 men on Friday described as government troops who surrendered during bloody fighting in northwestern Pakistan, a humiliating display of the insurgents' growing power in the region.
The rising violence has many Pakistanis worried President Gen. Pervez Musharraf could extend his military rule by imposing a state of emergency or martial law, jeopardizing a promised transition to democracy.
The Bush administration is increasingly concerned about the stability of Pakistan. It has been backing Musharraf, whose popularity is waning, as a bulwark against the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces and their allies based along the northwest border with Afghanistan.
"I think it would be quite obvious that the United States wouldn't be supportive of extraconstitutional means," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Ireland as she began a diplomatic mission to Turkey and the Middle East.
The militants in the northwest district of Swat, masked and armed with AK-47 assault rifles and long knives, escorted journalists to a two-story concrete building in the town of Charabagh to display the men, most described as paramilitary troops from the locally recruited Frontier Corps. The troops were later freed.
Musharraf's strategy against militants in the frontier region centers on boosting locally recruited paramilitary forces.
The display of captured men coincided with a visit to Pakistan by Adm. William Fallon, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, who met with Musharraf on Friday, according to Geo, the leading private television news channel.
"We have surrendered to these mujahedeen," said Barkat Ullah, 24, who, like other captives, was wearing civilian clothes, saying they had left their uniforms at their posts. "We had no ammunition. We had no other option."
The militants later said they freed the men. Authorities on Thursday denied that there had been any surrenders, and army and government spokesmen did not respond to calls seeking comment Friday.
Meanwhile, a missile destroyed a suspect militant hideout along the Afghan border on Friday, killing 10 people inside and wounding 11, security officials said.
It was not clear who struck a compound in the village of Danday on the outskirts of Miran Shah, the North Waziristan tribal region's main town, about 12 miles from the frontier, an army official and two local security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
But residents said they saw a low-flying drone an hour before the attack flying from the direction of the Afghan border.
"I saw a spy plane about one hour before the explosion," said Arman Khan, a local shop owner. Two other residents also said they saw a drone before the attack.
Residents in Miran Shah said they heard a huge explosion. Militants blocked a reporter from approaching the building that was hit.
Separate from the battles in Swat, Pakistani forces have been battling pro-Taliban militants in North Waziristan, the scene of heavy fighting last month.
Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said there have not been any strikes close to or across the border reported on Friday. He said the closest strike was about 10 miles inside the Afghan border.
The clashes and a string of homicide bombings have deepened unease ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on the validity of Musharraf's Oct. 6 presidential victory.
There are fears that a ruling against Musharraf — already upstaged by the recent return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto following eight years in exile — could be the trigger for emergency rule or martial law.
Bhutto, who flew to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, reportedly for a weeklong visit with family, abruptly changed her travel plans several times over such fears. Her party finally said she left when her fears over imposition of martial law had eased.
She narrowly escaped assassination in a homicide bombing when she returned to the country Oct. 18 to lead her party in parliamentary elections.
"At the moment ... last night, this morning, has there been a decision to impose emergency? I say no," Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem said Friday, hours after Geo said the government was in discussion on whether to impose an emergency.
Government officials say militants account for most of 180 people killed in fighting around Swat since 2,500 militiamen from the region's paramilitary Frontier Constabulary deployed last week to tackle the followers of cleric Maulana Fazlullah.
The casualty figures are difficult to verify in the volatile, mountainous region.
Fazlullah's spokesman, Sirajuddin, said 100 security forces had surrendered in Swat in addition to the 48 freed men.
Those held in Charabagh said they did not want to fight other Muslims and fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Collectively they told reporters they were resigning from their jobs.
"I will prefer to become a laborer instead of fighting against our own people," said Riaz Khan, 24.
Militants in the South Waziristan tribal region are still holding more than 230 soldiers kidnapped two months ago.
Mohammed Hanif, an aide of Fazlullah, said militants had also captured two foreign men but had yet to decide what to do with them. He had no details about their nationality or occupation. Local media reports have suggested they are journalists.