Handover in Kurram: Taliban free copter crew

File photo of MI-17. PHOTO: AFP

File photo of MI-17. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: The crew of a Punjab government helicopter that crash-landed in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month arrived in the federal capital on Saturday after they were released by the Afghan Taliban in an ‘inter-tribe exchange’.

The crew — five Pakistanis and a Russian navigator – was seized by the Afghan Taliban after their M-17 transport helicopter went down in Logar province on August 4, Taliban sources had earlier confirmed to The Express Tribune.

The chopper was en route to Russia via Uzbekistan for repairs when it crash-landed in Azra district of Logar, parts of which are under the control of the Taliban.  The militants set the helicopter on fire and took the crew hostage. Pakistan had sought permission to fly the helicopter over Afghan air space.

The crew “was released in an inter-tribe exchange on the Pakistan-Afghan border [and] arrived in Islamabad today,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. It neither specified who had been holding the crew hostage nor what kind of exchange had secured their release.

All six crewmembers are ‘safe and in good health’, it said, identifying them as Capt Safdar Hussain (chief pilot), Capt Safdar Ashraf (co-pilot), Capt Muhammad Shafiqur Rehman (first officer), Nasir Mahmood  (flight engineer), Muhammad Kausar (crew chief) and Sergei Sevastianov (Russian navigator).

Sevastianov met the Russian chargé d’affaires at the State Guest House in Islamabad. The Russian chargé d’affaires thanked the government of Pakistan for the efforts in the recovery of Sevastianov. Russia’s embassy in Islamabad would organise the navigator’s return home.

Sources told The Express Tribune that the crew was handed over to Pakistani authorities in Spina Shaga, a border area of Kurram Agency which had housed a major base of the Gulbudin Hekmatyar-led Hizb-e-Islami resistance group during Jihad against the former Soviet Union.

The Taliban commander for Logar province handed over the crew to officials of the political administration on Saturday morning, local sources said. Security officials and members of a Jirga were also present at the time of handover. The crew was then flown to the office of the political agent in Parachinar.

The Express Tribune has learnt the crew was in the custody of fighters under the control of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the Taliban’s military in-charge for 22 provinces of Afghanistan, mostly eastern and northern.  A former minister in the Taliban regime told The Express Tribune they had earlier thought the crewmembers were British nationals.

A Taliban source denied the handover involved some kind of deal, dismissing speculation that Pakistan might have freed some Taliban prisoners in return for the crew. “Tribal elders from both sides of the border were involved in negotiations for the release of the crew,” a Pakistani source added.

The Afghan forces had transferred the wreckage of the helicopter to Kabul a day after the crash-landing. The next day Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the commander of the foreign forces by telephone and sought their help in the recovery of the crew. Analysts said it was not clear how the Pakistan government had secured the crew’s safe release. “Our government is tightlipped while the army also did not say anything about the role of the Afghan government,” security analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.

“One thing is however, very clear — that the Afghan Taliban certainly do not want their ties with Pakistan to deteriorate,” Askari said. He questioned why the helicopter was being sent to Russia for repairs through Afghan airspace, describing it as a ‘mysterious exercise’.

Original news : http://tribune.com.pk/story/1161922/handover-kurram-taliban-free-copter-crew/