Family freed after 5 years in Afghanistan
5 WASHINGTON >> Stuffed by their captors into the back of a car with their children as they were being ferried across the rugged tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, an American woman and her Canadian husband were in the final moments of their five-year ordeal as hostages.
Suddenly, shooting erupted. The militants found themselves cornered by the Pakistanis. The gunbattle ended, and Pakistani troops pulled the family from the vehicle, to be taken by helicopter to Islamabad.
The Pakistanis, acting on information provided by U.S. intelligence and collected from drones that had been tracking the hostages, had pulled off Wednesday’s risky operation.
The firefight, described by relatives of the family as well as U.S., Canadian and Pakistani officials, capped the end of an unimaginable ordeal for Caitlan Coleman, 31, and her husband, Joshua Boyle, 34, who were seized in October 2012 by the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction. Coleman, who had been pregnant when she was abducted, gave birth to all three of her children in captivity. Boyle suffered minor shrapnel wounds in the raid, his family said. President Donald Trump praised the Pakistanis for their role in freeing the family.
“This is a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan,” Trump said in a statement on Thursday. “The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region.”
The family was at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad late Thursday, Tariq Azim Khan, a Pakistani diplomat, said in a telephone interview from London. The Pakistani military pledged to repatriate them, and U.S. officials were exploring how to get the family out of South Asia. Boyle’s relatives said they expected him to return home in the coming days. “Josh indicated that they’d like to come back to Canada,” his mother, Linda, said outside the family’s stone house in Smiths Falls, Ontario, about an hour southwest of Ottawa. “That was their plan right now.” After marrying in 2011, Coleman and Boyle spent months traveling in Central America before leaving for a trip through Russia and Central Asia. They had planned to leave Afghanistan in late 2012 because of Coleman’s pregnancy. But they were kidnapped in October of that year while backpacking in Wardak province, a militant stronghold near Kabul. In exchange for the family’s freedom, the Haqqani network had previously demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, one of its commanders. The Afghan government captured Haqqani in 2014, and he was sentenced to death. The militant group had threatened to kill the family if he was executed. Earlier attempts to bring the family home fell short. In January 2016, Colin Rutherford, a Canadian, was freed after Qatar arranged a prisoner swap with the Afghan government. Officials had hoped Rutherford would be the first in a series of releases, including Coleman and her family.
But that never materialized, for reasons that remain unclear. No prisoners were exchanged and no money was paid to secure the family’s release, Khan said. The Obama administration sought to jump-start talks with the Taliban but those efforts faltered after the U.S. military killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban’s leader, in a drone strike in May 2016. Coleman’s pregnancies added pressure to resolve an already desperate situation, one in which the Haqqanis had repeatedly threatened to kill the family, including the children. The end of the family’s captivity was a victory for State Department officials and the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which had worked on the case for years. The group was created under the Obama administration to improve the government’s efforts to free hostages and to ensure their families received timely information about them.