WANA, Pakistan – Al Qaeda-linked militants have executed eight Pakistani soldiers taken hostage in fighting near the Afghan border, officials said on Saturday, raising the temperature in an offensive on Islamic radicals.
The soldiers, their hands tied behind their backs and apparently shot at point-blank range, were found in a ditch on Friday near Wana, the capital of the South Waziristan area in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal territories.
They were likely taken hostage and killed shortly after their convoy was ambushed on Monday, a Pakistan army official said. Twelve other soldiers died in the ambush.
The latest deaths could spark an outburst of anger against the al Qaeda militants, many of them Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechens whose local support could be threatened by the brutal killing.
“It was a cold-blooded murder,” said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the army’s spokesman. “We have identified the local and foreign militants and now we are chasing them.”
“It was the worst kind of terrorism,” he said.
President Pervez Musharraf’s government announced on Thursday more troops would be sent to the tribal territories bordering eastern Afghanistan to reinforce a campaign to root out about 400 to 500 al Qaeda fighters and their Pakistani tribal allies.
Around 100 people have been killed since last week when paramilitary forces hunting militants linked to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ran into a hail of bullets as they approached a suspect’s house in the rugged South Waziristan region.
The battle, involving 5,000 troops, is Pakistan’s biggest in the region and comes after Musharraf narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in December, blamed on Muslim militants.
The executed troops are separate to a group of 14 soldiers and officials thought to have been kidnapped at the start of the clashes. Tribal elders had been trying for days to persuade the militants to release the men and surrender.
The grisly revelation comes a day after Pakistan condemned a taped message purportedly by bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri, calling on Pakistanis to overthrow Musharraf as a “traitor” to Islam working for the United States.
The army has held back its attack for the past four days as tribal elders try to negotiate the militants’ surrender and the release of 14 captured government men. But the talks have made little headway. The militants are demanding the army withdraw.
In an apparent spillover from the stand-off, at least two rockets were fired overnight at a paramilitary check post near Miranshah in North Waziristan. Witnesses said no one was injured.
Pakistan, while supporting the U.S. war on terror, had come under pressure for not doing enough to root out militants from its remote mountains on the Afghan border.
Authorities say 163 militants have been captured in the sweep and about 55 killed. Nearly 40 soldiers are believed dead.
Sultan said army bulldozers had destroyed about 80 percent of the fortress-like homes of the deeply religious Yargul Khul tribe suspected of sheltering al Qaeda members in South Waziristan.
Many of the militants have been viewed as heroes of Islam by the devout Muslim tribesmen, whose Pashtun ethnicity is shared by the Taliban fighters ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001.
But the executions and days of fighting, in which more than a dozen civilians have died and scores have been forced from homes, is turning some tribes against the militants, residents say.
“What they have done is against Islamic teachings,” said Mullah Abdul Yasin, a tribal elder in Wana, referring to the killed soldiers. “We condemned this brutal act.”
Pamphlets threatening people who oppose al Qaeda and the Taliban have been handed out and similar messages have been blared from speakers on vehicles, local media reports say.
“The common people are very unhappy. Now it’s enough. They (the foreign militants) should now leave our land,” said Muhammad Zafar, shop owner in Wana.
Pakistan’s tribal belt has been a magnet for Muslim fighters since the 1980s when a stream of volunteers turned up from around the world, with the backing of Pakistan and the United States, to help battle Soviet forces in Afghanistan.