CHARBAGH, Pakistan (AFP) -Islamic militants loyal to a pro-Taliban cleric in northwest Pakistan paraded 48 men said to be paramilitary troops who surrendered during a week of fierce clashes.
Television crews were allowed to videotape conversations with the detainees — who were later released — in the troubled Swat Valley tourist area, where security forces are trying to crush a rebellion by insurgents seeking to impose strict Islamic law.
Masked followers of firebrand religious leader Maulana Fazlullah brandished assault rifles, rocket launchers and traditional curved Swati swords as they displayed the men to the media.
The Islamist fighters freed the men later Friday and gave each of them 500 rupees (eight dollars).
Pakistani military and government spokesmen had earlier denied that any troops were captured. They were not immediately available to comment on Friday’s display of the men by the militants.
One of the purported soldiers shown to reporters at Charbagh town, 15 kilometres (nine miles) northeast of the regional capital Mingora, said the rebels had surrounded their hill-top outpost.
“We had exhausted our rations and ammunition. We had no option but to surrender,” said the man, who did not give his name and like the others was not wearing his uniform.
The soldiers, all apparently aged between 25 and 35 years of age, said they were from the paramilitary Frontier Corps, which patrols the northwestern border region with Afghanistan.
Pakistan moved 2,500 troops into Swat last week to counter cleric Fazlullah, who is also known as “Mullah Radio” for his speeches on his private radio station, in which he calls for a holy war on the authorities.
The rebels kept the captive troops in a two-storey house in Charbagh. The men, sporting short beards, said they were provided with food and clothes by the militants.
“They (militants) told us that we will not be harmed if we surrender. If not, then the entire population from the village below will climb up the hill and may kill you,” another soldier told reporters.
“We surrendered for the sake of Islam and also shed our military uniforms.”
There was no way of independently verifying the claims of the militants or the identities of the alleged captive troops.
The army said on Thursday that up to 70 militants were killed earlier that day after helicopter gunships pounded rebel positions in Swat following the breakdown of a fragile truce.
Clashes at the weekend left dozens more dead, according to the military, while around 30 people, mostly troops, died in a suicide bombing targeting a paramilitary vehicle in the area on October 25.