Taliban Abduct 11 Civilians From Downed Helicopter

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- An emergency landing by a helicopter ferrying foreign engineers in eastern Afghanistan turned into a mass abduction by the Taliban, officials said on Monday, offering a stark reminder of the insurgents' continuing hold on large parts of the countryside.

The aircraft was forced down late Sunday because of a storm, according to the Afghan transport company that operated it, and it had to land in Mangal Khel, a mountainous area of Logar Province that is almost entirely controlled by the Taliban.

In all, 11 people were abducted, according to reports from the Turkish foreign ministry and Afghan government officials. They included eight Turkish engineers, one Afghan man and the two pilots of the Russian-made helicopter. One pilot was confirmed to be Russian; the other was either Russian or from Central Asia, but there were conflicting reports of his nationality.

"It's a lot of people to take hostage -- a lot of civilians," said a senior Western official here who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the abduction. "It gives the Taliban bargaining chips, no question about that."

How the Taliban leverage their unexpected capture of foreigners will indicate, to some extent, their overall priorities. They could use the hostages for short-term goals, like offering them in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners from the Bagram Prison, where some 3,000 accused insurgents are in custody. Or they might quietly seek a large ransom in exchange for the hostages' release to help finance their operations. And as efforts grind on to restart either American or Afghan peace talks with the Taliban, there is also the chance that the windfall of hostages might lead the Taliban to believe that they suddenly are in a stronger position in any potential negotiations.

Afghan officials, one of whom described the abductions as "very terrible," said they were worried that the hostages might be taken to Pakistan, where many international terrorist groups are based. The area where the helicopter landed is less than 20 miles from the Pakistani border.

One senior Afghan official noted that as of Monday night, the Afghan government was still unsure where the hostages were being held and whether they were still in Afghanistan. Local officials in Logar Province said the Taliban were moving the hostages from village to village.

The Taliban took responsibility for the abduction, sending out a carefully worded statement to the news media on Monday afternoon that used relatively restrained language that it sounded similar to Western statements, including a headline and dateline, even though some of the information was wrong, according to Afghan and American officials. The headline read: "US-NATO Chopper falls into hands of Mujahedeen, all passengers detained"

Although the Taliban statement claimed that those captured worked for the military, the Taliban routinely make false claims, and there was no indication that any of those captured were either military contractors or troops.

The Turkish government reached out to Afghan tribal leaders to see if they could mediate with the insurgents, and the Turkish deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, went on national television Monday night to emphasize the government's efforts to get its citizens back.

The kidnapping has put Turkey, which has carved a niche for itself running crisis diplomacy between the West and the Muslim world, in the unusual position of needing emergency mediation itself. The semiofficial Anatolia news agency said the government had reached out to local Afghan officials, including the chairman of the Logar Province provincial council.

"The Foreign Ministry is involved in a serious follow-up, and we hope that our citizens will be freed soon and return to their work locations in safety," Mr. Arinc said.

The Turkish military has occupied a special position in the international coalition fighting here. They have nearly 1,000 troops and have run two provincial reconstruction teams, one in the violent Wardak Province and the other in the north in Jowzjan. The Turks' prominent role in civilian development and that they are Muslim may alter somewhat how the Taliban deal with them. Just three weeks ago, the Taliban, after lengthy, quiet negotiations by the Turkish government, handed over unharmed a Turkish engineer who had been abducted two years earlier, according to a statement by Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman for the north and east.

For Russia, the helicopter kidnapping was a rare case of recent tensions with the Taliban. After the departure of the former Soviet Union's troops from the country in 1989 after a brutal 10-year war, the Russians generally kept their distance from Afghanistan. When Russia began to rebuild its Afghan ties shortly after the fall of the Taliban, it kept a concertedly low profile, concentrating on civilian and development projects that mostly kept its citizens out of harm's way.

The Russian Embassy in Kabul had no comment on the abduction Monday other than to confirm that one of its citizens was among the hostages, apparently deciding that a low profile might be helpful as negotiations go forward.

The company who operated the helicopter, Khorasan Cargo Airlines, employs a fleet of Russian-designed helicopters and so has sought pilots from the former Soviet Union who are familiar with them.

Yama Farooq, the director of administration for Khorasan Cargo, said the helicopter took off from Khost Province on Sunday afternoon bound for Kabul when bad weather forced it to land. Khorasan Cargo is an Afghan company with offices in Kabul, the United Arab Emirates and Kyrgyzstan, according to its Web site.

Azar District, where the helicopter went down, is one of a number of districts in eastern Afghanistan that are little different from the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan just miles away. The district is home to opium poppy farmers and timber smugglers who can move freely, unlike most others.

"The incoming and outgoing roads from the district to surrounding provinces are entirely under Taliban control," said Abdul Wali, the Logar provincial council chairman. "No government people can travel on those roads."

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul, and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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