‘Harm­less’ fam­ily on the way home

Nelson Mail - - WORLD -

PAK­ISTAN: An Amer­i­canCana­dian cou­ple and their three chil­dren were freed yes­ter­day af­ter be­ing held hostage in Afghanistan for five years by mil­i­tants linked to the Tal­iban and al Qaeda.

Cait­lan Cole­man, 31, who gave birth to all three chil­dren in cap­tiv­ity, and her Cana­dian hus­band Josh Boyle, 34, are now at the United States em­bassy in Is­lam­abad af­ter an op­er­a­tion by the Pak­istani mil­i­tary and US in­tel­li­gence.

The fam­ily had been held by the Haqqani net­work, a pow­er­ful Pash­tun group that re­cruited Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and re­tains close links with the Tal­iban.

They were freed af­ter US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, which had been track­ing the fam­ily, alerted Pak­istan’s army that they had crossed over from Afghanistan. Pak­istani troops moved in on a site in Kur­ram Agency, in the coun­try’s law­less tribal belt.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump praised Pak­istan’s ef­forts. ‘‘ We hope to see this type of co­op­er­a­tion - a key word - in help­ing se­cure the re­lease of re­main­ing hostages and in our fu­ture joint coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions,’’ he said.

Cole­man, of Penn­syl­va­nia, and Boyle, of On­tario, were seized in Oc­to­ber 2012 while back­pack­ing in Afghanistan’s War­dak prov­ince, a mil­i­tant strong­hold near Kabul.

At the time of her ab­duc­tion in Oc­to­ber 2012, Cole­man was preg­nant. She had two more chil­dren in cap­tiv­ity, putting added pres­sure on al­ready fraught hostage ne­go­ti­a­tions and fur­ther rais­ing di­plo­matic ten­sions around the case. A video re­leased by the Tal­iban last year showed the cou­ple with two boys.

The newly mar­ried cou­ple were de­scribed as ‘‘harm­less hip­pies’’ at the time of their cap­ture. Boyle’s par­ents spoke with him yes­ter­day and learned for the first time that they had a grand­daugh­ter in ad­di­tion to two grand­sons.

How­ever, a wrin­kle emerged in the plans to repa­tri­ate the cou­ple when Boyle ap­par­ently re­fused to board a US C-130 Her­cules air­plane that had been char­tered to take the fam­ily to the US. He was pre­vi­ously mar­ried to a Mus­lim woman whose fa­ther was linked to an ex­trem­ist group, and is said to fear le­gal reper­cus­sions. At the time of his cap­ture, US au­thor­i­ties con­cluded that his ab­duc­tion with his new wife was merely a co­in­ci­dence.

It was un­clear yes­ter­day whether the fam­ily’s re­lease was the re­sult of a swap, a res­cue or a pay­ment deal struck with the Haqqa­nis, who over­see the Tal­iban’s lu­cra­tive side­line in kid­nap­ping.

With the fam­ily in cap­tiv­ity, the ter­ror­ist group put great pres­sure on the US and Afghan gov­ern­ments. In 2014, af­ter Cole­man had given birth to her sec­ond child, the group threat­ened to kill the whole fam­ily if the Afghan gov­ern­ment went through with its sen­tence of death for Anas Haqqani, one of the group’s com­man­ders who had been cap­tured.

The Pak­istani army is­sued a state­ment say­ing that Cole­man, Boyle and their chil­dren had been res­cued ‘‘through an in­tel­li­gence­based op­er­a­tion by Pak­istani troops and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies’’. It added that the fam­ily were al­ready ‘‘be­ing repa­tri­ated to their coun­try of ori­gin’’. Pak­istan gave no fur­ther de­tails of the op­er­a­tion.

Trump sug­gested that the op­er­a­tion could help to im­prove strained re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. His ad­min­is­tra­tion was pre­vi­ously crit­i­cal of Pak­istan for fail­ing to do more to com­bat ex­trem­ism, ac­cus­ing the coun­try of of­fer­ing a safe haven for ter­ror­ists.

At the White House yes­ter­day, Trump said: ‘‘[Pak­istan] worked very hard on this, and I be­lieve they’re start­ing to re­spect the United States again.’’

FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray said he ‘‘could not be hap­pier’’ that the fam­ily had been re­leased, but that the US was ‘‘not go­ing to rest when Amer­i­cans are held over­seas’’.

At least two other Amer­i­cans are still be­lieved to be held by the Haqqani net­work.

Paul Overby dis­ap­peared in May 2014 while on his way to Pak­istan’s tribal lands to in­ter­view a ji­hadist leader for a book.

Kevin King, a 61-year-old pro- fes­sor, was snatched from out­side a uni­ver­sity in Kabul last year. In Jan­uary, mil­i­tants from the Haqqani net­work re­leased a video of King in which he pleaded with Trump for help. ‘‘Have mercy on me and get me out,’’ he said.

An Aus­tralian pro­fes­sor was kid­napped along­side King. An un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to res­cue them was mounted in 2016.

The group was also re­spon­si­ble for kid­nap­ping Bowe Bergdahl, the Amer­i­can soldier who was held in cap­tiv­ity for five years be­fore the US gov­ern­ment agreed to trade him for five Tal­iban com­man­ders.

The fam­ily’s re­lease is help­ful for Pak­istan, com­ing days be­fore a re­newed ef­fort to re­vive Afghan peace talks next week. Diplo­mats from Afghanistan, Pak­istan, China and the US will meet in Oman, though the Tal­iban has said it will not at­tend the talks and that its po­si­tion of re­fus­ing to en­gage with the Afghan gov­ern­ment ‘‘re­mains un­changed’’.

Ten­ta­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions col­lapsed last year af­ter the Tal­iban’s for­mer leader, Mul­lah Akhtar Man­sour, was as­sas­si­nated in a US drone strike in a re­mote part of Pak­istan.

Is­lam­abad has also been un­der di­plo­matic pres­sure from the US, with Trump sig­nalling a tougher line on its covert sup­port for Is­lamist mil­i­tants shel­ter­ing in Pak­istan, in­clud­ing the Tal­iban and Haqqani lead­er­ship.

Trump, con­firm­ing plans to de­ploy an ex­tra 4000 US troops in Afghanistan in an ef­fort to force the in­sur­gents back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, warned that Pak­istan must ‘‘change im­me­di­ately’’ its strat­egy of har­bour­ing mil­i­tant groups.

The Haqqa­nis play a piv­otal role in kid­nap­ping. Crim­i­nal gangs and smaller Is­lamist groups snatch tar­gets and sell the hostages on. The Haqqa­nis com­monly move pris­on­ers across the bor­der to their strongholds in Pak­istan, out of reach of US forces.

- The Times

PHOTO: REUTERS

A still im­age from a video posted by the Tal­iban on so­cial me­dia in De­cem­ber 2016 shows Amer­i­can Cait­lan Cole­man speak­ing next to her Cana­dian hus­band Joshua Boyle and their two sons. The cou­ple also had a daugh­ter dur­ing the five years they spent as cap­tives in Afghanistan.

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