Taliban fighters Wednesday forced 30 captive Pakistani security officers to quit their jobs in exchange for freedom, dealing an embarrassing blow to an army battling to control the Swat valley.
The militants kidnapped 30 police and paramilitary personnel at night when security forces halted efforts to break a siege at a village police post, underscoring the huge challenges facing the authorities in the northwest.
Despite a wave of government offensives, the military has failed to impose its authority on the valley, once a scenic holiday resort near the border with Afghanistan where Islamists are waging a bloody campaign to enforce Sharia law.
"They have given assurances to the Taliban that they would quit their jobs and will take no part in any activity against the Taliban," a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed that the kidnapped officials had been released under certain conditions, on which he did not elaborate.
"We have released the kidnapped police officials conditionally," Muslim Khan told AFP from the northwest Swat valley by telephone.
The militants confiscated weapons and two police vehicles and dumped the freed captives in a mountainous area near the rural town of Kabal, they said.
Thousands of Taliban besieged a police station in the area of Shamozai on Tuesday. The army was mobilised to rescue the police and break the circle of rebels, security officials said.
Clashes continued throughout the day but as dusk fell, the operation was suspended. Then, overnight, the Taliban broke into the office, kidnapped the officers and blew up the building, said Swat police chief Dilawar Khan.
Until two years ago, Swat was a jewel in the crown of Pakistani tourism, frequented by foreign and local holiday-makers escaping to the mountains for skiing in winter or more refreshing climes in the punishing heat of summer.
But the area descended into chaos in mid-2007 after radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah embarked on a terrifying campaign to enforce a Taliban-style Sharia law, prompting thousands of people to flee.
Pakistan, under massive Western pressure to clamp down on extremists, has stepped up its attempts to wrest back control of the valley.
Thousands of civilians have fled the area, which locals say has fallen to the insurgents.
Analysts believe the military is inadequately equipped to wage a successful counter-insurgency operation against militants who often melt seamlessly into the populace, while civilians are frequent victims of offensives.
US officials say northwestern Pakistan has become a haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who fled there from neighbouring Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion, regrouping and launching attacks across the border.
Northeast from Swat, Pakistani engineers opened an alternative supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan after militants blew up a key bridge on Tuesday.
"The road has been opened for all types of traffic, light and heavy, including NATO vehicles," Tariq Hayat, the head of administration in the Khyber tribal region, told reporters in the border town of Jamrud.
NATO and US-led forces in Afghanistan are dependent on Pakistan for their supplies and equipment, with an estimated 80 percent of it trucked in by land.
Taliban rebels torched 10 trucks contracted to ferry goods for NATO troops by firing rockets at a terminal in the border town of Landi Kotal late Tuesday, said local government official Rahat Gul.
In Peshawar city itself, police killed eight Taliban militants in a clash Wednesday that also wounded two policemen, security officials said.