Three of Pakistan's 260 soldiers taken hostage in the country's tribal areas along the Afghan border were found dead on Thursday, raising fears for the safety of the remaining troops.
A Pakistani intelligence official says the bullet-riddled bodies of the three men were found near Jandola, a town in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The soldiers' bodies were discovered a day after the militants holding them captive threatened to kill three soldiers every day unless the government accepted their demands which include the release of at least ten hardcore Islamic militants in official custody.
The intervention of a local tribal council known as a 'jirga' has secured the release of at least 30 soldiers so far but there are up to 230 soldiers still in custody of the militants. The case of the kidnapped soldiers marks a major setback for the pro US government of General Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler.
Pakistan has deployed up to 90 thousand troops in the tribal region to combat members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime who crossed over from Afghanistan, fleeing US, Afghan and NATO forces deployed in the central Asian country. The militants have taken refuge in new sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas which have remained semi-autonomous for years before Musharraf ordered troops to enter the region in 2003.
Approximately one thousand Pakistani troops have been killed in anti terror operations since the country joined the US led alliance against terror, after abandoning Afghanistan's Taliban regime just days after the New York terrorist attacks.
The killing of the soldiers on Thursday comes just two days ahead of General Musharraf's bid to be re-elected, albeit controversially, in Saturday's presidential elections. His candidature is contested by opposition leaders who among other charges accuse him of his failure to tackle rising militancy in the country, and of his proximity to the US.
"General Musharraf has not only failed to tackle this problem(of militancy). He has also failed to defend the interests of Pakistanis in the face of growing pressure from the United States" said Khurshid Ahmed, a senator for the islamist alliance, the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal) in comments this week.
On Tuesday, General Musharraf named General Ashfaq Kiyani, the former head of Pakistan's inter-services intelligence (ISI) counter espionage agency, to take over as the new military chief once Musharraf steps down by a deadline of November 15 that he has given. Kiyani is known among western defence experts as a pro-western General who has worked closely with the CIA during his three years at the ISI.
Kiyani's immediately challenges will include resolving the case of the kidnapped soldiers in the tribal area. The kidnapping has prompted anxiety among western diplomats over the future conduct of Pakistani military operations in the tribal region.
By Farhan Bokhari