Taliban fighters abduct school's staff and pupils

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Pakistani authorities negotiated early today for the release of about 200 students and staff from a military-run college abducted by Taliban militants as they travelled home for a holiday.

The abduction yesterday took place while the Pakistani army pressed on with an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley in another part of the northwest.

Militant violence has intensified in nuclear-armed Pakistan since mid-2007, with attacks on security forces and on government and Western targets.

The violence has alarmed the United States, which needs Pakistani action to help defeat al Qaeda and get to grips with the Taliban insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters with hand grenades seized the students' convoy heading home for the summer holiday from the North Waziristan ethnic Pashtun region on the Afghan border to the town of Bannu, 150 miles southwest of Islamabad.

Bannu police chief Iqbal Marwat said Taliban had seized up to 400 people in 28 vehicles but scores had escaped. The vice principal of the college, Javed Alam, later told Reuters about 200 had managed to slip away and had arrived at Bannu.

Mirza Mohammad Jihadi, an adviser to the prime minister on the tribal areas, said efforts were in progress to secure their release.

"Contacts have been established with the kidnappers and talks are under way," Jihadi told Reuters late last night.

Neither he nor police gave any details of the kidnappers or their demands.

There are several Taliban- and al-Qa'ida-linked groups based in North Waziristan in a loose alliance with Taliban in Swat. The army has not launched an offensive in North Waziristan.

Militants have captured many members of the Pakistani security forces in the past few years but the kidnapping of civilians is relatively rare.

Pakistan launched an offensive against a growing Taliban insurgency in the Swat valley, 80 miles northwest of northwest of Islamabad, a month ago.

The army captured Swat's main town, Mingora, on Saturday, and the next day lifted a curfew, allowing thousands of people trapped by the fighting to leave.

"There is nothing to eat, no water, no electricity, no gas, no telephone, no hospital," said Nisar Khan, a Mingora resident, who brought his family out on Sunday.

A Reuters journalist who briefly visited Mingora on Sunday, said his home town had not suffered significant damage, and neighbours said civilian casualties were relatively few.

Fighting is continuing elsewhere in a valley.

The army sent in 15,000 troops, backed by artillery and air power, against a militant force initially estimated at about 5,000, but later put at 2,000 hardcore fighters.

There were no independent estimates of casualties but the army said more than 1,230 militants had been killed, while it had lost more than 90 men since the fighting began.

Most of Mingora's 300,000 residents fled after the army told them to get out before launching its attack. About 50,000 stayed.

Officials say an estimated 2.4 million people have been displaced by the conflict in Swat and adjoining areas, prompting UN warnings of a humanitarian crisis.

Aid workers say many civilians have been wounded in the fighting or have perished trying to reach safety.