PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- In a gesture of reconciliation, Pakistan yesterday freed 50 men arrested in a bloody counterterrorism offensive near the Afghan border, saying investigations proved them innocent.
They were released a day after authorities pardoned five renegade tribal leaders accused of harboring Al Qaeda fugitives. In exchange, the leaders promised to live peacefully and not aid terrorists.
The deal could end months of fighting between tribesmen and Pakistan's Army in the lawless region of South Waziristan, which has emerged as the front line in the country's battle to control tribal militants with strong ethnic and ideological ties to Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
Its barren mountains and mud-brick villages have long been considered a possible hide-out for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's number two man, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Prodded by the United States, Pakistan has deployed about 70,000 troops in the seven tribal areas, which traditionally have been free of central government control and are thought to provide sanctuary for antigovernment rebels operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Most of the tribal populations have grudgingly accepted the military's presence over the past two years, placated with badly needed development aid. But in South Waziristan, authorities faced fierce resistance and resorted to brute force.
A March 16-28 military operation involving thousands of army troops killed more than 120 people and left hundreds of villagers homeless. About 163 foreign and local suspects were arrested, but hundreds of other militants, including an Uzbek separatist leader with ties to Al Qaeda, were thought to have escaped.
Among the militants who got away were five powerful tribesmen who allegedly had sheltered Al Qaeda fugitives, a charge they deny. They agreed to the government amnesty Saturday, after their Zali Khel tribe raised a 2,000-member militia to pressure them to accept the deal.
In an apparent quid pro quo, the government yesterday kept its promise to release 50 of the 163 prisoners arrested last month.
Investigations had ''proved them innocent," army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said.
The peacemaking in South Waziristan could raise doubts with Pakistan's American allies about Islamabad's commitment to cracking down on terror suspects.
US officials have praised the government's March operation and made clear they expected to see more. At least 48 soldiers died in the operation.