Militants release 25 captured Pakistani soldiers

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WANA, Pakistan, Sept 21 (Reuters) Pakistani militants released today 25 of nearly 250 soldiers they have been holding captive for weeks after the army agreed to pull out of two posts in the northwest, an official and tribal elders said.

The capture of the soldiers in late August as they travelled in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border has been an embarrassment for the government of President Pervez Musharraf and came during a surge in militant attacks on the security forces.

The abductions and violence have raised fresh doubts in the minds of many in Pakistan about army chief Musharraf's deeply unpopular support for the US-led war on terrorism. Musharraf will seek another term as president in an October 6 election.

A tribal elder involved in negotiations for the release of the captured soldiers said the militants, who are linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban, handed over the 25 to a council or jirga, of elders.

They released six of the captives early this month.

Efforts were underway to secure the release of the others, said the elder, Akhtar Gul.

''It's a good beginning,'' said a senior administration official in Wana, South Waziristan's main town.

The militants have been demanding the release of some captured comrades and the withdrawal of troops from three posts in the region, which is known as a hotbed of support for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The official said security forces had abandoned two hill-top positions after militants demanded that the government abide by a peace agreement signed in 2005.

Another tribal elder, Aisam-ud-din, said the militants would release the other soldiers if their demands were met.

Attacks on security forces and abductions of soldiers have surged in Pakistan's volatile northwest since July when militants scrapped a nine-month-old peace deal in North Waziristan and army commandos stormed a radical mosque in the capital Islamabad.

Suicide bombers have also struck near army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi and at a commando base near Islamabad.

Several hundred people, most of them members of the security forces and militants, have been killed.


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