Pakistani security forces fighting Taliban militants in and around the Swat Valley have rescued nearly a dozen boys brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers, according to officials.
A senior security officer in North West Frontier Province said nine boys were found during raids, while two more had voluntarily surrendered, and a army commander in Swat spoke of more being handed over by their families.
"They have been brainwashed in such a way that they even call their parents infidels," Bashir Bilour, senior minister in the provincial government, told Reuters.
Bilour said the boys were shown films about oppression of Muslims in the Palestinian Territories and Indian-held Kashmir, and were given purported religious instructions to convince them that they would go to heaven if they killed enemies of Islam.
They have been brainwashed in such a way that they even call their parents infidels
Bashir Bilour, senior minister in the provincial government
Brigadier Tahir Hameed, an officer leading military operations in Mingora, Swat's main town, said the Taliban had forced many families to let them take their boys.
He said some had since returned to their parents, who in turn handed them over to the authorities because of their brainwashed state. The government was working out how to rehabilitate the boys, aged between nine and 18.
The Taliban has regularly claimed responsibility for suicide attacks carried out by boys both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistani security forces have shown Western journalists locations where children were said to have been trained, although there was no independent corroboration available.
On Tuesday, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a security checkpoint 6 km (about 4 miles) north of Miranshah in North Waziristan's tribal region, killing one paramilitary soldier and wounding two, intelligence officials said.
The military launched an offensive almost three months ago against the Taliban stronghold after the militants crept into the neighboring valley of Buner, just 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad.
Around 20,000 troops have been deployed in the Swat operation, and in the last two weeks hundreds of thousands of people who had fled the fighting have begun to go home.
But the guerrillas were still putting up resistance in the north of the Swat Valley, and even the outskirts of Mingora remained insecure.
On Tuesday, villagers found the decapitated body of a policeman on the edge of the town. He had gone missing four days earlier.
According to the military, nearly 1,800 militants have been killed during the campaign in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir district, but there is no way of independently verifying casualties.
The army was ordered more than a month ago to conduct another operation further to the southwest, in the Waziristan region, to punish Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud.
Action so far has been confined to sealing off his stronghold in the wilds of the South Waziristan tribal region, and hitting Mehsud's forces with air strikes and medium-range artillery.
Until Swat was secured, any full-blown ground offensive was unlikely in Waziristan, where the militants are far more entrenched and in greater numbers, analysts say.
The military does not want to open multiple fronts or become too thinly stretched at a time when it also needs to station troops on the border opposite the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where U.S. forces launched their own operation against the Taliban earlier this month.