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Afghan Taliban says foreign captives 'safe'

The Taliban said today a group of overseas captives had been moved to a "safe area" following the largest abduction of foreigners in six years, highlighting Afghanistan's insecurity as NATO troops prepare to leave.

world Updated: Apr 23, 2013 18:04 IST

The Taliban said on Tuesday a group of overseas captives had been moved to a "safe area" following the largest abduction of foreigners in six years, highlighting Afghanistan's insecurity as NATO troops prepare to leave.

Afghan security forces were hunting for the group of eight Turks, a Russian, a Kyrgyz man and an Afghan, all seized after their helicopter made a forced landing on Sunday in a rugged district part-controlled by the insurgents.

"They have been moved to a safe area, they have no health problem and they are fine. They are inside Afghanistan," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP by phone from an undisclosed location.

The Mi-8 helicopter, carrying Turkish road engineers and with a Russian and Kyrgyz crew, landed in the Azra district of Logar province south of Kabul, not far from the border with Pakistan where the Taliban have rear bases.

Asked what would happen to the group, Mujahid said: "The Taliban leadership will decide."

The helicopter took off from Khost province on Sunday afternoon and was headed for Kabul when bad weather forced it to land.

The Taliban on Monday claimed that nine of the group were Americans and two were Afghan interpreters, but appeared to back away from that assertionon Tuesday.

"We are still receiving information but initial information obtained from our mujahideen (holy warriors) said that they were American," the spokesman said. "We will have to wait for more information."

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a search for the group had begun but declined to give details for security reasons.

"The incident is being investigated and we will make sure that they are safely freed," he said.

A government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that authorities are trying to get tribal elders to negotiate with the Taliban, in preference to mounting a major military operation.

A Logar provincial government spokesman, Din Mohammad Darvish, also said the focus was on talks.

"The area is sealed off by security forces to prevent them moving out the hostages," Darvish told AFP. "Efforts are underway to solve this through elders."

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion and have been battling Afghan troops and a US-dominated foreign military force ever since.

Afghan troops and police are increasingly on the frontline as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Some 73% of all insurgent attacks in January-March were against Afghan soldiers or police and only 4% against foreign forces, according to a study by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

The report, whose figures were disputed by officials, said insurgent attacks rose by 47% in the first quarter compared to January-March 2012.

The abduction sparked concern in Turkey, which said its diplomats were holding "intensive talks" with Afghan authorities.

"We hope that our nationals will be rescued as soon as possible and safely returned to the regions where they work," Turkish deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters.

The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) denies that any foreign military were aboard the helicopter and says it was a civilian flight.

An ISAF spokesman on Monday said that NATO troops were ready to assist Afghan security forces but there had been no request so far.

Turkey, one of only two Muslim-majority members of NATO, has around 1,800 soldiers serving with ISAF. But unlike its European allies, their mission is limited to patrols and its troops do not take part in combat operations.

The last time a major group of foreigners was abducted in Afghanistan was in July 2007, when the Taliban seized 23 South Korean church volunteers travelling through the south by coach.

The militants killed two men before releasing the rest, reportedly in return for ransom payments.

First Published: Apr 23, 2013 18:02 IST