Kidnapped envoy sends SOS to govt
The News,April 20, 2008, By Mushtaq Yusufzai & Mobarak A Virk
Captors demand release of 10 militants, ransom
PESHAWAR: Kidnapped Pakistani envoy to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin made his first appearance on Saturday after his abduction in March on a TV channel in which he was shown requesting the government to accept the demands of the abductors for his early release.
A Taliban group that is holding the kidnapped Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan is reportedly demanding the release of about 10 militants and some ransom money in return for his freedom.
The demands became known for the first time following the appearance of videotape in which Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin was shown making a statement. However, he made no mention about the nature of those demands and the government, too, said nothing about the issue.
Taliban sources told The News that they had already communicated the demands to the government and were negotiating for acceptance with Pakistani authorities. In fact, Taliban members claimed the talks had entered a crucial stage and a deal could be struck anytime now.
The usually informed Taliban sources said a group of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban had kidnapped the envoy from Jamrud subdivision in Khyber Agency on February 11, 2008.
In his videotaped statement, Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin said he, his driver Gul Zaman and bodyguard Amir Sultan were kidnapped from a spot near the Ali Masjid in Khyber Agency. He said their abductors were Taliban Mujahideen.
In the tape, the three kidnapped men are seen sitting on a hillside. Three armed men covering their faces stood behind them while in the backdrop are thinly forested mountains.
The ambassador was on his way to Kabul from Peshawar when kidnappers intercepted his official vehicle and snatched him and his driver and bodyguard. The vehicle hasn't been recovered so far. Authorities in the Khyber Agency maintained that the ambassador had not informed them about his movement or requested special security measures.
According to sources, the Taliban militants had first demanded the release of their 10 men in custody of Pakistan government and Rs 500 million as ransom for the release of Tariq Azizuddin. The demand was reportedly made when a government negotiating team and Jirga managed to establish contact with them.
Taliban sources said on the top of the list of prisoners whose release was demanded was Mulla Obaidullah, deputy to Taliban head Mulla Mohammad Omar, and his regime's former defence minister. A news item quoting Pakistani law-enforcement agencies said at the time that they had arrested Mulla Obaidullah in Quetta in March 2007. However, the government later denied that Mulla Obaidullah was in its custody.
In fact, Taliban commander Baitullah Mahsud had also demanded Mulla Obaidullah's release when he was negotiating last year with the government through a Jirga seeking freedom for around 300 Pakistan Army soldiers in his custody in South Waziristan. The government, however, maintained that Mulla Obaidullah wasn't in its custody.
The list of the prisoners presented by the kidnappers to the government included the names of several Pakistani Taliban having affiliation with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and some Afghan Taliban. Among the Pakistani Taliban are seven of Baitullah Mahsud's men who weren't freed by the government in exchange for the 300 or so soldiers released by the militants in South Waziristan. Baitullah Mahsud later accused the government of going back on its word and threatened retaliation. It seems his men and others in the TTP were looking for an opportunity to kidnap someone important to force the government to release those seven militants. The opportunity arrived when they kidnapped Pakistan's envoy in Kabul.
TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar told The News that their group wasn't involved in the ambassador's kidnapping. However, he added that the kidnappers were like-minded people.
A militant commander privy to the negotiations for the ambassador's release said the talks had entered a decisive phase after the kidnappers reduced their demand for ransom and agreed to review the list of Taliban prisoners that they wanted to be freed. He said the government people had expressed inability to pay such a huge amount as ransom. He didn't specify the amount being demanded.
Taliban sources said the ambassador was twice allowed to talk to his family on satellite phone. They said all the three men, including the ambassador, were in good health and could be with their families soon.
In the videotape, which was first shown on Al Arabia TV channel, Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin urged the government to accept the Taliban demands and secure his release. Speaking in Urdu, he particularly asked his brother Tahir Azizuddin, foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan and his two friends, Pakistan's ambassador in Iran Shafqat Saeed and the country's envoy to China, Salman Bashir, to make efforts for his release.
Wearing an open-necked shirt and looking calm, he said, "I am suffering from health problems such as high blood pressure and heart pains." The bearded ambassador added, "Because of my health condition, I appeal to all of you to pray for us and do all to save our lives and meet the demands of the Taliban Mujahideen as soon as possible so that we may be released."
Meanwhile, the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Interior, Rehman Malik, said that the kidnapped Pakistan ambassador to Kabul, Tariq Azizuddin, was safe and the government was making its best efforts for his safe release.
Commenting on the video footage of the kidnapped envoy aired by an Arab TV channel, Malik said that it was quite old, probably prepared somewhere in early March, 2008, not long after he was kidnapped.
"Since then, some developments have taken place as a result of the concerted and sincere efforts made by the government to secure the safe release of Tariq Azizuddin, his driver and the bodyguard," Malik said.
He said that the efforts were going on to bring the sad happening to a satisfactory end. "According to authentic information, Azizuddin as well as his driver and guard are safe and sound so far. The Prime Minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, has also directed all relevant authorities to redouble the efforts for the safe recovery of the ambassador and the two other persons," the adviser to the prime minister said.
He said that the government was also in contact with the family of the ambassador and actively pursuing the efforts being made for his safe recovery. "The government immensely appreciates the fortitude and courage with which the members of the family of the kidnapped ambassador are facing the situation and continuing to extend all cooperation while fully understanding the situation," he said.
FACTBOX: Pakistan's kidnapped ambassador to Afghanistan