Taliban militants free 211 Pakistani troops

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WANA, Pakistan, Nov 4 (Reuters) Taliban militants freed 211 Pakistani troops today after holding them captive since late August in a tribal region near the Afghan border, officials and the military said.

The Pakistani militants handed over the soldiers to tribal elders in South Waziristan, a mountainous Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold where they were captured on August 30 after their supply convoy was trapped by a landslide.

''The soldiers have returned to their camp in South Waziristan,'' Major-General Waheed Arshad said.

A cleric, Maulana Miraj-ud-din, head of the group of tribal elders that negotiated with the militants, told Reuters the troops were handed over to authorities in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan.

Fighters led by Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud had demanded the release of some captured comrades and the withdrawal of troops from their tribal lands in exchange for the soldiers' freedom.

Arshad said South Waziristan authorities had released some people detained under tribal laws, but that paramilitary troops were still deployed in the area.

Intelligence officials in the area said that 25 people had been released in exchange for the troops.

The soldiers' release came a day after President Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in Pakistan, citing rising terrorism and extremism among his reasons.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan's security has deteriorated sharply since July, when Pakistani commandos stormed the Red Mosque in the capital, Islamabad, to crush a Taliban-style movement.

Nearly 800 people have been killed in militant-linked violence since then, including more than 23 suicide attacks.

A November 1 suicide attack on an Air Force bus killed eight people, while seven died two days earlier when a bomber blew himself up less than a kilometre from Musharraf's army residence in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.

A suicide bomb attack in Karachi killed 139 people at a procession on October 19 to mark the return from self-imposed exile of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

REUTERS NY RAI2336

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