Taliban seize 22 Pakistani paramilitary fighters

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Thu Dec 27, 2012 5:40pm GMT

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Pakistani Taliban have seized at least 22 men from a regional paramilitary force in attacks on three checkpoints in northern Pakistan, a regional official said on Thursday.

Taliban and other Pakistani sources put the number higher.

The raids close to the provincial capital of Peshawar follows two high-profile attacks in the city this month, underlining the Taliban's willingness to take on the Pakistani state amid speculation of divisions among senior Talibani leadership.

At least 22 men were missing, two had been killed and one was injured after militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles launched the overnight attacks, said Naveed Akbar, a regional official whose remit covers the Levies, or tribal force, units.

Other Pakistani officials said at least 30 men had been taken, a figure echoed by Taliban spokesmen.

Eight of the paramilitary soldiers have been killed, Taliban spokesman Mohammed Afridi said in Khyber agency, or region. He said the group had captured 30 soldiers. Another spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan, said 33 were taken.

Military sources said no soldiers or police were missing. The Levies is a force raised from the tribes and supported by the Pakistani government.

The kidnappings follow a daring suicide attack on Peshawar airport and a bombing that killed a senior politician and eight others at a political rally in the city earlier this month.

It was not immediately clear whether the uptick in attacks was connected to speculation that the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, is losing control to his deputy.

On Thursday, two Taliban spokesmen laid out conditions for a ceasefire with the Pakistani government that included the adoption of Islamic law, renouncing the alliance with the United States and halting any involvement in Afghanistan.

But there was no statement from Mehsud himself. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said there was no point discussing any potential ceasefire without Mehsud's endorsement.

Pakistani officials have said they want to support the Afghan peace process, statements interpreted to mean they might help persuade militant groups to negotiate with the Kabul-based government.

There are many divisions within the Pakistani Taliban. One main point of contention is whether to focus on attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan or the military in Pakistan. One militant leader who favoured not attacking Pakistani forces was injured in a bombing last month.

Some Pakistani Taliban are hiding over the border in southern Afghanistan, prompting the Pakistanis to complain that U.S. and Afghan forces are not doing enough to root them out.

Those Taliban, led by Maulana Fazlullah, beheaded 17 Pakistani soldiers kidnapped in an attack earlier this year and ordered the attempted assassination of Malala Yousufzai, a teenage advocate for girl's education.

(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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