11 hostages are ideal “bargaining chips,” official says.
KABUL, Afghanistan – An emergency landing by a helicopter ferrying foreign engineers in eastern Afghanistan turned into a mass abduction by the Taliban, officials said Monday, offering a stark reminder of the insurgents’ continuing hold on large parts of the countryside.
The chopper was forced down late Sunday because of a storm, according to the Afghan transport company that operated it, and it had to land in an area of Logar province, Mangal Khel, that is almost entirely controlled by the Taliban. Although Logar borders Kabul and has a large and mostly U.S. base near the province’s capital, it also has a vast mountainous stretch that has become an insurgent haven, local officials said.
According to reports from the Turkish foreign ministry and Afghan government officials, 11 people were abducted: eight Turkish engineers, one Afghan man and the two pilots of the Russian-made helicopter. One pilot was confirmed to be Russian; the other was either Russian or from Central Asia, but there were conflicting reports of his nationality.
“It’s a lot of people to take hostage — a lot of civilians,” said a senior Western official here, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It gives the Taliban bargaining chips, no question about that.”One senior Afghan official noted that as of Monday night, the Afghan government was still unsure where the hostages were being held and whether they were still in Afghanistan. Local officials in Logar province said the Taliban were moving the hostages from village to village.
The area where the helicopter landed is less than 20 miles from the Pakistani border.
The Taliban took credit for the abduction, sending out a carefully worded press statement on Monday afternoon that used restrained language so that it sounded similar to Western press statements, including a headline and a dateline, even though some of the information was wrong, according to Afghan and U.S. officials. The headline read: “US-NATO chopper falls into hands of Mujahedeen; all passengers detained.”