International media reported that Taliban kidnappers freed German engineer Rudolf Blechschmidt and four of his Afghan colleagues in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners by the government in Kabul.
The source of those reports was Mohammed Naeem, a local administrative chief in the Jaghato district of Wardak Province.
Some media referred to Naeem only as "an Afghan official." And rather than identifying Naeem as a local administrator from a remote area to the southwest of Kabul, others wrongly portrayed his comments as a statement by the Afghan central government.
Neither Confirm Nor Deny
On October 10, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan asked the spokesman of the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zmarai Bashari, to clarify whether there had been a swap for Taliban prisoners. Bashari told Radio Free Afghanistan that he had no information and was unable to either confirm or deny the reports.
Later, after officials in Kabul were inundated with questions from journalists about the reported prisoner exchange, Naeem retracted his earlier comments. He said no Taliban had been released, but he said five imprisoned criminals had been freed -- including the father of the Taliban commander who had abducted the German and Afghans.
Today, Bashari faced a swarm of reporters at a Kabul press conference asking what kind of deal -- if any -- had been reached to obtain the release of the hostages.
"The release occurred as a result of cooperation of elders and efforts of security forces," Bashari said. "I reject reports about any deals in this case, and we do not have any information about a deal that led to their freedom."
Afghan Government Criticized
Blechschmidt was one of two German engineers abducted along with six Afghan colleagues in July while visiting a construction site. One of the Afghan captives apparently escaped, while the other German hostage, a 44-year-old, reportedly was shot by his abductors a few days after being kidnapped.
The Italian and Afghan governments were heavily criticized in March when five imprisoned Taliban were freed in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo. At the time, Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed to never again trade Taliban prisoners for hostages.
Since then, there has been a series of high-profile abductions by Taliban militants and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. Unconfirmed reports of ransom payments and prisoner releases appear to have encouraged more kidnappings in recent months despite official denials. Kabul has insisted that no ransom was paid and no prisoners were exchanged for a group of South Korean hostages seized by the Taliban in July.