ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Gunmen who took up to 250 Pakistani school children hostage on Monday in a northwestern town freed them all and surrendered to tribal elders, a government spokesman said.
Violence and lawlessness has spread across Pakistan in recent months, seeping out of remote tribal regions on the Afghan border into cities and towns, raising fears about the stability of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
“All the children have been released and the criminals have surrendered to the jirga,” said interior ministry spokesman Javel Iqbal Cheema. A jirga is a council of tribal elders. Cheema said none of the children was hurt.
Cheema said the gunmen were members of a kidnap gang but government officials and police had earlier said there were about seven Islamist militants holding the children in the school in Bannu town.
President Pervez Musharraf told a news conference in London the gunmen were “extremists”.
The gunmen fled into the school in the North West Frontier Province town and took the children hostage after they had kidnapped a health department official and his driver, police said.
Police chased the gunmen and one was killed in a clash before the rest fled into the school, police said. The health official and his driver were freed.
Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz had said there were between 200 and 250 children in the school.
Cheema said authorities in the area would hold talks with the council of elders on the fate of the gunmen.
Separately, the military said heavy fighting was going on between security forces and militants in two areas of South Waziristan on the Afghan border.
Security forces have this month been battling insurgents led by an al Qaeda-linked militant chief the government said was behind last month’s assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
One soldier had been killed and nine wounded in the fighting on Monday, the military said.
More than 150 militants and 20 soldiers have been killed in the South Waziristan fighting this month.
In neighboring North Waziristan, two soldiers were killed in a militant attack on a checkpost, while three policemen were killed in another attack in the Orakzai tribal region on Sunday night, intelligence officials said.
Authorities also found the bodies of two decapitated policemen in the scenic Swat valley in North West Frontier Province on Sunday night, officials there said.
Security forces began an offensive to clear hundreds of well-armed militants out of the valley in November.
In another part of the northwest, security forces recaptured on Sunday a road tunnel that had been seized by militants, killing about two dozen of them.
Troops in the area, in the Darra Adam Kheil tribal region, came under fire on Monday but held their positions, the military said.
Militant violence has surged since July, when the security forces stormed a radical Islamabad mosque where militants defying the government had amassed a large quantity of weapons.
Hundreds of people have been killed in a wave of attacks, including many suicide bombings, since then.
The United States, which is leading the battle against Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan, is concerned about increasing al Qaeda and Taliban efforts to destabilize Pakistan.
But President Pervez Musharraf, who has ruled out allowing foreign troops to operate on Pakistani soil, has rebuffed U.S. proposals to let the CIA have greater latitude in Pakistani tribal areas, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton