Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Militants release Pakistani envoy

FREE AT LAST While Islamabad recently released 30 tribesmen in exchange for 55 soldiers, it wasn't known whether a swap had been made for the ambassador

AGENCIES , ISLAMABAD

Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin speaks in a video aired by the Dubai-based al-Arabiyah news channel on April 19.

PHOTO: AFP

Suspected Taliban militants have released Pakistan's envoy to Afghanistan more than three months after he was kidnapped in Pakistan's Khyber tribal region, a senior government official said yesterday.

“I can confirm he is released, and he is safe and sound,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said.

Tariq Azizuddin, 56, went missing on Feb. 11 along with his driver and a guard as he was traveling from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the Afghan-Pakistani border. He was on his way back to the Afghan capital, where he had been ambassador since 2005.

The route winds through the historic Khyber Pass, the main link between landlocked Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, and a major supply route for foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani television channels said the envoy had been freed in Afghanistan.

A relative said Azizuddin was expected to return home to his family in Pakistan shortly.

“The authorities contacted us and said that Aziz has been released and he would be back by the evening,” a family member said.

Last month, Azizuddin appeared in a video on an Arabic television station saying he was being held by the Taliban.

The bespectacled and gray-bearded ambassador complained of high blood pressure and chest pains in the video, which showed two of his captors wearing baggy trousers and tunic and brandishing assault rifles.

He said in the video that he had been taken with his driver and bodyguard, who were also shown sitting beside him.

Azizuddin had pleaded in the video for the government and the foreign ministry “to do all they can to protect our lives and to answer all the demands of the mujahidin of Taliban in order to secure our release.”

The day of his kidnap coincided with Pakistani security forces seizing a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, in southwestern Baluchistan province, also bordering Afghanistan.

Azizuddin did not say what demands the Taliban were making, but Pakistani media reports had reported they had called for the release of several jailed militants.

A Pakistani Taliban spokesman had earlier denied that members the guerrilla movement were responsible for abducting the envoy.

Pakistan’s new government, sworn in at the end of March, has begun a policy of engagement, negotiating through tribal leaders to bring peace to a region where Pakistani security forces have been struggling to contain a growing Taliban insurgency. The long tribal belt on the border is notorious for being a haven for smugglers and bandits and turned into a major sanctuary for al-Qaeda and the Taliban militants who fled from Afghanistan after a US-led invasion in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The ambassador’s recovery comes amid recent headway in talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the six-month-old coalition government led by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Pakistan’s new government defeated backers of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in elections in February and has pledged to completely overhaul the key US ally’s pursuit of the “war on terror.”

As part of the ongoing peace process, the authorities last month released some 30 tribesmen held in various prisons in return for the release of 55 soldiers detained by pro-Taliban militants, an official said.

It was not immediately known whether a swap led to the release of the envoy.

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