PULI ALAM, Afghanistan: Afghan village elders negotiated with the Taleban yesterday to try to win the release of a group of foreign hostages, officials said, but no progress was reported so far.
The insurgents seized eight Turks, a Russian, a Kyrgyz man and an Afghan after their civilian helicopter made a forced landing due to bad weather on Sunday in a rugged eastern district part-controlled by the militia.
The Taleban, who are fighting an 11-year insurgency against US-led NATO troops and the Afghan government, initially claimed the foreigners were linked to the US military.
“The Taleban have now realized that the hostages are civilians,” said Arsala Jamal, governor of Logar province where the helicopter came down. “But I cannot say there has been any progress so far in the talks to get the hostages released,” Jamal said, speaking of discussions between the elders and the militants.
Abdul Wali Wakil, head of the elected provincial council, said the hostages were fine apart from one Turk, who apparently suffers from heart problems and was sent medicine through the negotiators.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said earlier in the day the captives “have been moved to a safe area, they have no health problem and they are fine.”
Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, he said they were still in Afghanistan.
The Mi-8 helicopter, carrying Turkish road engineers and with a Russian and Kyrgyz crew, landed in Azra district, not far from the border with Pakistan where the Taleban have rear bases.
Asked what would happen to the group, Mujahid said: “The Taleban leadership will decide.” The seizure was the largest abduction of foreigners in almost six years, and highlighted Afghanistan’s continuing insecurity as NATO combat troops prepare to pull out next year.
In two deadly incidents Tuesday, police said four children aged under 10 died when a mine planted by the Taleban exploded while they were collecting firewood in Maruf district of the southern province of Kandahar.
And two foreign soldiers died after an insurgent attack in the east, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement, which did not give their nationalities.
An Afghan government official said on condition of anonymity that authorities want negotiations involving tribal elders to try to secure the hostages’ release, rather than a major military operation.
Raids to release hostages in Afghanistan have not always ended in success.
In October 2010 British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed as US forces tried to rescue her from kidnappers in eastern Afghanistan.
The last time a major group of foreigners was abducted in the country was in July 2007, when the Taleban seized 23 South Korean church volunteers traveling through the south by coach.
The militants killed two men before releasing the rest, reportedly in return for ransom payments.
The Taleban were ousted from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion and have been battling Afghan and foreign troops ever since.
Attacks by them and other insurgents rose 47 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to January-March 2012, according to figures from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.
Turkey, one of only two Muslim-majority members of NATO, has around 1,800 soldiers serving with the US-led ISAF. But they do not take part in combat operations.