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Ex-Pakistani spy Colonel Imam dies in captivity

Sultan Amir Tarar, a.k.a. Colonel Imam, was kidnapped by militants last spring along with another former Pakistani agent and a British journalist. Tarar was considered the architect behind the Taliban's rise in Afghanistan.

January 25, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — A retired Pakistani intelligence agent regarded as an architect behind the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan died after being held hostage by militants for 10 months, though officials in northwestern Pakistan said they had yet to determine whether his captors killed him or he died of natural causes.

Sultan Amir Tarar, known throughout Pakistan as Colonel Imam, was kidnapped by militants last spring along with another former Pakistani spy, Khalid Khawaja, and a British television journalist. The hostage-takers killed Khawaja in April and later released the journalist.

Tariq Hayat Khan, a top administrative official for Pakistan's tribal area, said Tarar died while in the custody of militants, but added that authorities had yet to confirm how he died. Some Pakistani media reported that Tarar was executed, and other news accounts said he died of a heart attack.

The fact that someone instrumental in the Taliban's evolution would himself become a kidnap victim illustrated how a new, younger generation of militants operating out of the largely lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border isn't influenced by the bonds Pakistan's intelligence community nurtured with Taliban militants in years past.

After undergoing Special Forces training at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in the mid-1970s, Tarar played an instrumental role in the struggle of Afghan mujahedin against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, working closely with the CIA to help train and support militant fighters. Once the Soviets were forced out, Tarar helped guide Taliban insurgents as they assumed power in Afghanistan, and continued to maintain strong ties with Taliban leaders, particularly the insurgent group's supreme chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Western analysts and observers have often accused Tarar of continuing to support Taliban insurgents in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, though Tarar always denied the claims.

"What can I give them?" he told Time magazine in an interview in 2008. "They are much beyond my training. I think they would teach me."

The militant organization that claimed responsibility for the abduction of Tarar, Khawaja and British journalist Asad Qureshi called itself the Asian Tigers, a group of Punjabi militants that experts say exemplified the new wave of militants in North Waziristan, the tribal region the three men were visiting when they were kidnapped. According to Pakistani media reports, Tarar and Khawaja were acting as guides for Qureshi, who was making a documentary about militancy in the tribal areas.

In April, Khawaja's body was found along a road in North Waziristan with bullet wounds to his head and chest. Qureshi was freed in September.

In exchange for Tarar's release, militants had been demanding that the Pakistani government free two Taliban leaders in custody, as well as other militants being held in connection with terrorist attacks on Pakistan's army headquarters in 2009 and on a mosque in Rawalpindi later that year.

The Associated Press quoted Pakistani authorities as saying Tarar's captors were demanding $200,000 in exchange for the release of his body.

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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