The leader of an outlawed militant alliance waging terrorism in Pakistan praised his fighters Tuesday for taking several security officials hostage inside a provincial police counterterrorism interrogation center and urged them not to surrender, come what may.
Noor Wali Mehsud, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban or TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan), issued the statement from his shelter in Afghanistan, raising renewed doubts about the sincerity of counterterrorism pledges by the neighboring country’s Islamist Taliban leadership.
“I congratulate you for carrying out this sacred act. I instruct you not to surrender to these infidels and apostates under any circumstances,” Mehsud said.
The TTP released the local Pashto language audio message just hours before Pakistani army commandos launched an operation and rescued the hostages from the compound in the northwestern garrison city of Bannu.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, while sharing details with an evening session of parliament in Islamabad, said the counterterrorism center had housed “33 terrorists” when the siege started in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The Pakistan army’s elite Special Service Group (SSG) conducted the operation and killed “all the terrorists,” Asif said. He added that two SSG personnel were also killed, while up to 15 others were wounded in the clashes.
Residents reported they heard explosions and gunfire in the vicinity of the police compound.
Security officials said the operation was launched after multiple rounds of negotiations with “terrorists” to secure “freedom for innocent people” failed to achieve a breakthrough.
The hostage crisis started Sunday, when several detainees at the provincial counterterrorism facility were being interrogated in connection with incidents of terrorism. Some of the suspects managed to grab weapons from security guards before freeing an unspecified number of “high-profile terrorists” from the detention cell inside the compound.
Pakistani police and military forces quickly arrived in a bid to retake control of the facility and free the hostages. Their effort failed and at least one police officer was killed while several others were wounded in a brief gunfight.
The TTP claimed responsibility for being behind the siege. Pakistani officials opened negotiations Monday to seek freedom for the hostages, but the militants refused and instead demanded safe air passage to Afghanistan along with the captives.
The hostage-takers released a video message from inside the compound shortly after they took control of it, demanding the Pakistani government arrange for them “safe air passage” to Afghanistan. Otherwise, they threatened to kill all the hostages.
The TTP, a Pakistani offshoot and ally of Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban rulers, has stepped up attacks in Pakistan since ending its shaky, months-long unilateral cease-fire with the government last month. The truce was brokered by the Afghan Taliban in talks they hosted in Kabul between TTP leaders and Pakistani officials in June of this year.
The Pakistani Taliban is designated as a global terrorist organization by the United States, Britain and Canada.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price called Monday for the safe release of the hostages, reiterating that Islamabad is an important partner with Washington on dealing with the challenge of terrorist groups.
“There are groups that are present in Afghanistan, in the Afghan-Pakistan border region that present a clear threat as we’re seeing not only to Pakistan but potentially to countries and people beyond,” Price told reporters in Washington.
“So we’re in regular dialogue with our Pakistani partners. We are prepared to help them take on the threats they face,” Price added.
The Taliban rulers in Afghanistan repeatedly pledged to the world they would not provide a haven for transnational terrorists, including al-Qaida and the TTP.
Taliban-led Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi reiterated the pledge while speaking to VOA last week.
“The Islamic Emirate has a policy of not allowing anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against others and of non-interference in their internal affairs,” Balkhi said, using his government’s official title.
In a bid to address allegations the TTP is using Afghanistan for terrorist activities, Mehsud alleged in his message Tuesday that the TTP controls territories in Pakistan.
“We are fighting our war from within the territory of Pakistan. We do not need to use the soil of another country,” the TTP chief said.