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Pak Taliban admit to holding Shahbaz Taseer for first time

Published: March 16, 2012 | 9:35 am
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Islamabad: A Swiss couple held by the Taliban in north-western Pakistan for eight months turned up at a military checkpoint early on Thursday and were flown by helicopter to Peshawar and then Islamabad, where they were handed over to the Swiss Embassy, officials said.

It was unclear how the two obtained their freedom. A Pakistani military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said they had escaped. But in a video released last week, another Taliban hostage, Ajmal Khan, the head of a university in Peshawar, said that the government had agreed to pay “millions of rupees” and to free 100 prisoners in exchange for the Swiss hostages.

Kidnapping has become a major source of revenue and propaganda for the Pakistani Taliban and associated militant factions based in North and South Waziristan, the tribal agencies at the heart of militant operations that have borne the brunt of American drone strikes in recent years. Hostages captured by various groups around the country, or in Afghanistan, are often sold to the Taliban or Al Qaeda and transferred to the tribal belt.

Along with high-profile kidnappings of foreigners, the Taliban have targeted dozens of wealthy and prominent Pakistanis, some of whom have spent years in captivity. On Thursday night, the local news media reported that Amir Malik, 41, a wealthy jeweller kidnapped from Lahore in August 2010, had been freed in Waziristan.

Mr Malik’s father-in-law, General Tariq Majid, is a retired four-star general and former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Overjoyed relatives said the army had promised to bring Mr Malik home soon.

“We have been counting every day and hour since he disappeared,” his father, Aftab Malik, said by telephone.

The two Swiss hostages, Daniela Widmer, 29, and Olivier David Och, 32, were taken from their vehicle in the western province of Baluchistan on July 2, five days after crossing into Pakistan by road from India. They had been following an overland route to Europe once favored by adventurous tourists but that has in recent years been plagued by kidnappings. Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province, has been racked by a separatist insurgency for seven years.

Months after the abduction, the Taliban released a video of the couple, saying they were being held in a stronghold in Waziristan. The Taliban demanded $3.3 million in ransom, the release of 100 imprisoned Taliban fighters and the return of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving 86 years in prison in the United States for attempting to shoot an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2008.

A security official in Peshawar, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue, said: “This could be the result of some deal. You can’t just walk away from the militants’ den like this.”

A reporter for The New York Times, David Rohde, who was captured in Afghanistan, fled captivity in North Waziristan with an Afghan colleague in 2009, but otherwise successful escapes are rare. Others currently in captivity include Mr Khan, who went missing in September 2010; Warren Weinstein, an American consultant whose kidnapping has been claimed by Al Qaeda; Shahbaz Taseer, a son of the former Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated in January 2011; and an Italian and a German aid worker abducted in the southern city of Multan in January.

Last week, the Taliban made their first public claim of responsibility for Mr Taseer, who was seized from his Mercedes sports car in a wealthy district of Lahore in August. “Shahbaz is in good health but will only be released after our demands are met,” Abu Omar, a deputy to the local commander, Wali ur-Rehman, said in a telephone interview from a North Waziristan number.

In the video released last month, Mr Khan, the vice chancellor of Islamia College University, Peshawar, pleaded for the government to save his life.

“I am old and suffering from a heart ailment; I am left helpless, so please release four Taliban prisoners,” he said.


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