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Afghanistan Report: May 25, 2008

Pakistan: Reports Hint At Possible Prisoner Swap With Militants

By Ron Synovitz

Ambassador Azizuddin after his release on May 17

The Pakistani government has denied local reports claiming that the release of Islamabad's kidnapped ambassador to Afghanistan was part of an exchange for Taliban prisoners. A number of Pakistan observers, however, tell RFE/RL they suspect that some kind of prisoner swap did occur.

Local media suggest that scores of militants were released and hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom was paid to secure the release of Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin and dozens of captured government troops.

The development further fuels a policy debate over the negotiating with Taliban and other extremists, particularly as U.S. officials have warned Islamabad about making deals with fighters in Pakistan.

Azizuddin was kept captive by Taliban fighters for more than three months before he was released to government officials on May 16. The 56-year-old ambassador was abducted in February by a criminal group in Pakistan's tribal region as his limousine approached the border crossing into Afghanistan near the infamous Khyber Pass. The abductors then reportedly passed Azizuddin on to Taliban fighters in South Waziristan who held him until his release.

The day after he was freed, Azizuddin said a Pakistani security operation led to his release. Azizuddin said details about that operation would be revealed in the future.

He credited his release to "the efforts of the government of Pakistan, on the orders of the prime minister, on the order of the adviser for the interior, and on the chain of actions set about on the orders of the adviser for the interior and the Ministry of Interior."

The prime minister's adviser on interior affairs, Rahman Malik, is currently the senior ranking civilian official in charge of security in Pakistan. He claims that "there was no deal involved."

"There was no exchange for terrorists and there was no exchange of any individuals [for the release of Azizuddin]," Malik says.

Despite the government denials, a growing number of reports in Pakistan refute the official version of the story. Media reports have alleged that Islamabad freed up to 55 Taliban militants and also paid out some $287,000 in exchange for the release of Azizuddin and dozens of captured government troops.

Rustan Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan known for his hard-line pro-Taliban stances, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he has no doubt that Azizuddin's release was the result of weeks of negotiations between Islamabad and militants.

"I think that [insurgents] were definitely released [by Pakistan's government] and that the release of the ambassador was secured through negotiations," Mohmand says. He insists that "in those talks it was decided that the Pakistani Taliban would release the ambassador in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners."

Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that "the new reports we have been getting are now similar in almost all newspaper and media outlets."

Khan describes those reports as claiming that the former Afghan Taliban regime's onetime defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, and "other high-profile Taliban" were freed by the government. In exchange, he says, reports point to Taliban fighters' release of the Pakistani ambassador and "about 50 Pakistani soldiers and other abductees."

"The Taliban have confirmed this [prisoner exchange] in their statements, but the government has kept silent about it," Khan says. "I think that this release could not have happened without some kind of deal, so these reports about a prisoner exchange appear to be correct."

More recent media reports refute the claim that Islamabad has freed Mullah Obaidullah, saying militants demanded his release but that he had already been handed over to U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Neither the U.S. military nor Pakistan's government would comment to RFE/RL about Mullah Obaidullah's current whereabouts.

Media reports in Pakistan identify freed militants as including Mufti Yousuf -- a top Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan who had been arrested in Peshawar by Pakistani intelligence officials.

Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been transferred to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, was also reportedly handed over to militants in Razmak, North Waziristan, on May 17.

The reports say Baitullah Mehsud, a pro-Al-Qaeda Pakistani Taliban leader, was an astute negotiator and insisted that Taliban-held captives would be released only in exchange for prisoners of similar value.

Speculation is likely to continue in the absence of compelling evidence one way or the other.

What is clear about the current situation is that the Pakistani government, sworn in at the end of March, has begun a policy of engagement with the Taliban by negotiating through tribal leaders to persuade Mehsud to end militant operations in Pakistan's tribal areas.

U.S. General Dan McNeill, commander of NATO's 47,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, says such negotiations have raised concerns within the alliance.

McNeill confirms that NATO has reinforced its troops along the border in case the peace deal enables the Taliban to launch more cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

McNeill says NATO's analysis of previous peace deals between the Taliban and Islamabad shows that whenever dialogue is being conducted with the Taliban -- or when talks lead to peace deals in Pakistan -- there is a spike in militant attacks on the Afghan side of the border.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Congressional committee in Washington on May 20 that the United States is "concerned about the possibility of negotiations between the government or elements of the government and these extremist groups."

contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Abubakar Siddique in Prague and Najib Aamir in Peshawar

Afghanistan: Pakistani Ambassador Released By Kidnappers

Tariq Azizuddin, freed after three months in captivity, waves to supporters at his home in Rawalpindi

Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, who was kidnapped by suspected Islamic militants more than three months ago, has returned home safely after being released by his captors.

Tariq Azizuddin, his driver, and bodyguard were traveling to the Afghan capital, Kabul, when they disappeared in the border area between the two countries on February 11.

Relatives, friends, and the media gathered at the ambassador's residence in the city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, after Azizuddin was flown there from the northwestern city of Peshawar. On his return, Azizuddin said he was thankful to God and praised the efforts of the government to secure his freedom.

Azizuddin, who had grown a long beard and appeared exhausted, said he was treated well while in captivity.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry says the ambassador's driver and bodyguard were also released and are safe.

Ongoing Peace Talks

The releases came amid peace talks between Pakistan's new government and militant groups. But Rehman Malik, a security adviser to the prime minister, denied any deal had been struck to get the envoy and the two others freed, saying Azizuddin's release was "purely a result of law enforcement efforts." He did not give more details.

The French news agency AFP quoted an unidentified security official as saying the ambassador was recovered late on May 16 from the custody of a local Taliban group just outside the Khyber tribal district in Pakistan. Other media reports in Pakistan said the envoy had been freed in Afghanistan.

Azizuddin was travelling from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar when he was abducted.

Azizuddin's release came nearly one month after he appeared in a video on Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah television in which he said he and his colleagues were being "looked after." But Azizuddin also said he suffered from health problems, including high blood pressure and heart pains.

In the April video, in which a militant could be seen holding a gun to the envoy's head, Azizuddin said he had been seized in the Khyber area, near the Afghan border. He said he had been taken by "mujahedin from the Taliban," and urged the Pakistani government to meet the demands of the kidnappers. He didn't say what demands the Taliban were making, but Pakistani media reported the militant group had called for the release of prisoners.

A purported spokesman for the Taliban in Pakistan has denied that the group was responsible for abducting the envoy, however.

Mounting Lawlessness

The ambassador's disappearance highlighted mounting lawlessness in Pakistan's tribal belt on the Afghan border, where many areas are strongholds of pro-Taliban militants. Hundreds of people have been abducted and killed in the region in recent months.

Azizuddin's kidnapping coincided with Pakistani security forces seizing a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Mansur Dadullah, in southwestern Baluchistan Province, also bordering Afghanistan.

Ongoing peace talks between Islamabad and militant groups this week produced an exchange of prisoners, including 18 security personnel and 55 pro-Taliban militants. The move came ahead of a formal peace deal the Pakistani government is set to sign with pro-Taliban militants.

Compiled from agency reports, with Sarwan Asmatullah of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Watchdog Appeals To Kabul Over 'Blasphemous' Reporter

A supporter of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh holds a picture of the journalist during a rally in Kabul (file photo)

There's renewed international concern for Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a young Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy. The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders is urging the Afghan government to cooperate with the lawyer of Kambakhsh, who remains jailed in Kabul awaiting an appeal hearing.

Nearly two months have passed since Kambakhsh was transferred to the Afghan capital from a jail in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Yet the young journalism student -- who was sentenced to death at a summary trial in October for allegedly distributing information insulting to Islam -- is still languishing in a Kabul prison with no fixed date for his appeals hearing.

This week, Reporters Without Borders, the international press-freedom watchdog, once again raised its voice, appealing to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to cooperate with Kambakhsh's lawyer.

Kevin Olivier, who works on Asian issues for the organization in Paris, says the lawyer still has not received the file for the case from the Afghan authorities, which is preventing him from preparing the appeal.

"The case has not progressed since it was transferred to the Kabul court of justice," Olivier says. "We urge the authorities to speed up the procedure so that Kambakhsh's appeal can receive a fair hearing, far from the influence of religious fundamentalists."

Sentenced To Death

A journalism student who wrote for the newspaper "Jahan-e Naw" (New World), Kambakhsh was arrested in October on what rights activists say were trumped up charges of distributing information insulting to Islam. Kambakhsh was said to have distributed printouts of an article by an Iranian blogger about Koranic passages that the author said discriminated against women.

On January 22, Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in a trial that relatives say was held behind closed doors. The case highlights the tension between international human-rights law -- which the Afghan Constitution pledges to uphold -- and some interpretations of Islam.

Reporters Without Borders says his lawyer did not dare attend the trial for fear of reprisals. The watchdog is now urging the Afghan government to ensure the appeals hearing, which has still not been scheduled, will be fair and open.

"This was not the case when he was tried and sentenced to death for blasphemy in Mazar-e Sharif," Olivier says. "We call on foreign governments to continue to intercede on Kambakhsh's behalf."

Appeal Not Scheduled

However, just when his appeal will be heard remains unclear.

"They have not given us an exact time for hearing the appeal, but we hope it will be next month," Kambakhsh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who is also a journalist, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

In the wake of an international uproar over the case, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly told a delegation of Afghan journalists in February not to worry about Kambakhsh, to trust the legal system, and that he would be freed soon.

Kambakhsh was finally transferred to Kabul on March 27. He is being held in Pul-e Charkhi prison, in the eastern part of the capital.