Pakistan chopper crew home after Afghan hostage drama

Six crew members of a Pakistani government helicopter were taken hostage by the Afghan Taliban

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Six crew members of a Pakistani government helicopter which crash-landed in Afghanistan’s volatile east have been released, an official said Saturday, after they were taken hostage by the Afghan Taliban.

The crew “was released in an inter-tribe exchange on the Pakistan-Afghan border (and) arrived in Islamabad today,” foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said in a statement.

He neither specified who had been holding the crew hostage nor what kind of exchange had secured their release.

All six -- five Pakistanis and a Russian navigator -- are “safe and in good health,” he said, adding that the helicopter belonged to the Punjab provincial government.

A senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the crew’s safe return.

After the August 4 crash, local authorities in Afghanistan said the six-person crew had been taken hostage by the Afghan Taliban.

Militants set the MI-17 transport helicopter on fire and took the crew to a Taliban-controlled area after it made an emergency landing in Logar province.

The crew included retired Pakistani military officers and a Russian navigator, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported at the time.

Pakistan had sought permission to fly a helicopter -- being sent to Russia for overhauling -- over Afghan air space.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the navigator would be handed over to Moscow’s embassy in Islamabad, which would organise his return home.

Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif said he had spoken to the Afghan president after the crash in a bid to secure the crew’s release.

“President Ashraf Ghani assured all possible assistance in this regard,” he posted on Twitter.

Kabul has long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and continuing to nurture sanctuaries on its soil in the hope of maintaining influence in Afghanistan.

Analysts said it was not clear how the Pakistan government had secured the crew’s safe release.

“Our government is tight lipped while the army also did not say anything about the role of the Afghan government,” security analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.

The Afghan Taliban have not commented on the conditions of the release.

“One thing is however, very clear -- that the Afghan Taliban certainly do not want to deteriorate their ties with Pakistan,” Askari said, referring to Islamabad’s backing of the Taliban regime during its time in power in Afghanistan.

He questioned why the helicopter was being sent to Russia for repairs through Afghan airspace, describing it as a “mysterious exercise”.

Pakistan’s army uses Russian-made MI-17 helicopters, several of which have crashed in recent years.

In February, an army officer was killed when a military helicopter crashed in northern Pakistan on a routine night training mission.

Last August, 12 people were killed when a helicopter belonging to the army crashed in northwest Pakistan.

And seven people -- including two foreign ambassadors -- died in May last year when an MI-17 army helicopter crashed at a holiday resort in the hills of Gilgit.

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