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Militants release Pakistani envoy

May 18, 2008|Zulfiqar Ali and Laura King | Special to The Times

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — Taliban militants on Saturday released Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, three months after the envoy was seized in the tribal lands near the Afghan border.

The release of Tariq Azizuddin was the latest sign of a growing rapprochement between the Pakistani government and militants in the tribal areas. In recent days, the two sides have exchanged prisoners and the Pakistani military has been thinning out its troops in the border zone.

The Bush administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have expressed concern about the prospect of an accord between the new government and the militants, saying any truce could lead to an upsurge in attacks against Western troops in Afghanistan. Militants have used peace accords to regroup and rearm.

Azizuddin, whose release was first confirmed by Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, was reported to be in good health. The ministry gave no further details.

He had disappeared Feb. 11 as he was traveling from the frontier city of Peshawar toward the Afghan border. It was believed that he had been captured by a criminal gang operating in the Khyber tribal area, which includes part of the historic Khyber Pass. The area is rife with drug smuggling and arms-running.

At some point, Azizuddin, 56, apparently was handed over to Taliban-allied militants, said Pakistani officials familiar with the case.

In a video released April 19 and aired on Arab and Pakistani television, Azizuddin pleaded for authorities to negotiate his release and complained of health problems. His family also appealed for a deal to secure his freedom.

It appeared likely that Azizuddin's release was linked to the recent prisoner swaps in the tribal area of Waziristan, but no government official would confirm that. Waziristan is the base of militant commander Baitullah Mahsud, accused by the Pakistani government of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December. Fighters loyal to Mahsud were believed to have been holding Azizuddin.

The government recently has freed four dozen jailed militants, while the militants have handed over captured soldiers, including two army officers.

Azizuddin was appointed Pakistan's envoy to Afghanistan in 2005. Relations between the neighbors have at times been rocky, with tensions largely stemming from disputes over how to police the border.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.

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