Pakistan army frees hostages, kills all militants at anti-terrorism centre -minister

By and
  • All hostages freed after two days of captivity
  • Pakistan army loses two elite services commandos
  • Militants had snatched guns from their interrogators
  • Not clear how many militants were killed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Pakistani army commandos on Tuesday stormed a counter-terrorism centre and killed militant detainees who had seized control of the facility, as well as rescuing their hostages, after talks failed to resolve a two-day standoff, the defence minister said.

Khawaja Asif told parliament that all the hostages had been freed by the army in the operation, in which two Special Services Group (SSG) commandos were killed and several soldiers including an officer were wounded.

"The SSG started this operation..and all the terrorists have been killed," he said in televised comments, adding that the army had retaken full control of the counter-terrorism compound.

Pakistani Taliban militants detained at the centre had snatched interrogators' weapons and taken them captive on Sunday. Asif did not say how many militants were killed or how many hostages they had held.

Commando forces had surrounded the highly fortified military cantonment area in Bannu district where the detention centre was located, where about 20 fighters from the Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group of Sunni Islamist and sectarian groups, were holed up.

Pakistani authorities had on Monday opened talks to try to resolve the stand-off, but "all options failed and the terrorists refused to free innocent people, so we decided to use force", a senior security official told Reuters.

Residents said they heard explosions coming from the vicinity of the centre on Tuesday as helicopters hovered overhead.

The TTP emerged to fight the Pakistani state and enforce its own harsh brand of Islam in the years after U.S.-led allied forces intervened in neighbouring Afghanistan to oust its ruling Taliban in 2001 and drive them over the border into Pakistan.

Afghanistan's Taliban regained power after foreign forces withdrew in August 2021 and the affiliated TTP ramped up attacks after announcing the end of an Afghan Taliban-brokered ceasefire with the Islamabad government last month.

The standoff at the anti-terrorism centre in Bannu district, which is located just outside Pakistan's lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan, began a day after the TTP killed four police officers in a nearby town.

The militants were demanding safe passage to Afghanistan, according to government officials, which the TTP initially confirmed but said later that Pakistan's tribal regions were safe enough for the militants to flee to.

Pakistani military has since 2009 conducted several offensives in the tribal areas that served as the headquarters of local and foreign Islamist militants, including al Qaeda.

The army operations forced the militants and their leaders to flee to neighbouring Afghan districts. There, Islamabad says, they set up training centres to plan and launch attacks inside Pakistan, a charge Afghan authorities deny.

Reporting Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Asif Shahzad and Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Krishna N. Das and Mark Heinrich

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