A group of 23 Pakistani tribesmen kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for three weeks have been released after being submerged in cold water as punishment for meeting with an army general chief, officials said Friday.
Such kidnappings further threaten the government's shaky effort to convince hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians that the Taliban are defeated and that it is safe to return to their homes in North and South Waziristan.
Meanwhile, two bombs targeting a police building and a NATO truck convoy in western Pakistan killed a bystander and wounded three people Friday, officials said.
Pakistan Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq announced on Friday that that the 23 tribesmen kidnapped for meeting with the Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at a gathering in a western tribal district in early December had been released after being tried by a Taliban court and being submerged in cold water as punishment.
Three intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of their jobs, later confirmed that all the tribesmen had been freed, although the date of their release was not clear.
One of the 23, Shahbat Malik, said he had been reunited with his family in North Waziristan tribal district after being held in a prison-like cell for three weeks. He declined to comment on treatment in captivity.
U.S. drones target multiple missile strikes on suspected militants in North Waziristan, suggesting that a high-level insurgent commander might have been in the area.
Reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan and Kabul, —
A series of missile strikes killed at least 19 suspected insurgents Saturday in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, signaling that the new year would bring no respite in a relentless campaign of U.S. attacks employing unmanned aerial drones to target militant figures.
The strikes in the North Waziristan tribal agency were apparently aimed at the Haqqani network, an offshoot of the Taliban movement and one of the most deadly foes of U.S. and other Western forces in Afghanistan. The group's fighters operate mainly in the eastern part of Afghanistan but seek shelter in nearby Pakistan.
The multiple missile hits in the same area over a period of several hours, which targeted two vehicles and a compound, suggested that intelligence might have indicated the presence of a high-level commander. The compound that was hit belonged to a man affiliated with a commander named Gul Bhadur, who in turn is a senior associate of Siraj Haqqani, the network's chieftain.
Presumed U.S. drones staged nearly 120 missile strikes last year in Pakistan's tribal areas, which a variety of militant groups are known to use as a sanctuary. North Waziristan is the Haqqanis' home base.
With drone strikes steadily intensifying, this remote-control war is politically unpopular in Pakistan. However, its government is thought provide assistance, both active and tacit, in tracking militant figures to be targeted.
NATO officials have described the strikes as a highly effective means of targeting insurgent commanders who would otherwise be out of reach because Western ground forces are not supposed to operate inside Pakistan. More than 40 suspected insurgents have been killed by drone-fired missiles in the tribal areas over the last week.
Saturday's strikes coincided with the year's first reported deaths of Western troops in Afghanistan. Both deaths occurred in southern Afghanistan, one in an insurgent attack and the other in an explosion, the Western military said. The nationalities were not disclosed, but American forces make up the largest contingent in the south.
Last year was the deadliest of the nine-year war for Western troops, with nearly 500 Americans killed. The NATO force as a whole suffered more than 700 fatalities.
Also Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told journalists in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that American trainers would soon arrive to bolster efforts by Afghan security forces and customs officials to police border crossings with Pakistan. Drugs, money and weaponry flow nearly unimpeded across the long, rugged frontier.