KABUL, Afghanistan--Eleven people, including eight Turkish nationals, were captured after their helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in eastern Afghanistan in an area largely controlled by the Taliban, local authorities said Monday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the abductions and said the passengers on the flight were actually NATO soldiers posing as civilians. Local officials and a NATO spokesman denied the passengers were soldiers.
The private helicopter was carrying mechanical supplies and technical staff from a project in eastern Khowst province to Kabul on Sunday evening when it made a hard landing in the Azra district of eastern Logar province because of bad weather, said Din Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for the governor of Logar.
The Taliban seized everyone aboard, Darwish said, adding that the Afghan government had launched a rescue mission.
The mountainous, sparsely populated Azra district is largely controlled by Taliban who often move across the porous border between Afghanistan and restive northwest Pakistan.
Darwish identified those aboard as seven Turkish engineers, two Russian pilots and an Afghan interpreter. However, the Logar provincial governor, Arsala Jamal, told Associated Press that those seized included eight Turks, one Afghan translator and two foreign pilots of unknown nationality. Stepan Anikeyev, the Russian Embassy's press attache in Kabul, confirmed that a Russian pilot was among those being held.
An official with the Turkish foreign ministry in Ankara said its information was that there were eight Turks, one Afghan and one Russian aboard the aircraft. “Afghan authorities with local leaders are trying to ascertain where they are,” the official said, requesting that his name not be used, adding that the helicopter had been found empty. “We understand they’re in good health. No one knows what exactly happened when they landed.”
John Manley, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed that a civilian helicopter had gone down in eastern Afghanistan and said ISAF was assisting in the recovery operation.
In an email to news organizations, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and said there were 11 people on the aircraft who were posing as civilians but were in fact NATO troops wearing U.S. uniforms. “Mujahedeen immediately surrounded the chopper, detained all 11 foreigners aboard and completely destroyed the helicopter, which belongs to the foreign forces, by setting it alight,” it said in a message signed by the “spokesman of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The message attributed to the Taliban said all those aboard were transferred to “the most secure region of the nation” –- presumably a Taliban stronghold -- after being captured alive.
“The foreign forces, by disassociating themselves from the helicopter, are trying to make it seem as if the detainees are civilians,” the message added. “But denial will not benefit them as all were captured while wearing American military uniforms.”
Manley said the Taliban was wrong about the uniforms. “There’s absolutely no truth to that,” he said.
The helicopter was reportedly chartered from Kabul-based Khorasan Cargo Airlines. Its website says the company owns five Russian Mi-8, three Mi-17 helicopters and an AN-26 fixed-wing aircraft, employs mostly Central Asian pilots and specializes in troop and cargo transportation, medical evacuation and civilian logistics services.
Turkey, one of only two Muslim-majority members of NATO, had 1,093 troops in Afghanistan as of mid-February. Its forces carry out patrols and training of Afghan forces and are not involved in combat operations.
According to a report by the independent Afghan NGO Safety Office released Saturday, attacks by the Taliban and other insurgents rose sharply during the first quarter of 2013. The independent group reported 2,331 insurgent attacks during the January-March period, a 47% increase over the same period of 2012. The report added that 2013 was on target to become the second-most violent year since the war started, after 2011.
Violence levels are being watched closely as NATO transfers more security responsibility to Afghan forces in advance of the scheduled withdrawal of foreign combat troops by late 2014.
In other news Monday, ISAF said it killed Feda Mohammad, a top leader from a group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, in northern Balkh province on Saturday. Mohammad, also known as Omar, reportedly helped plan a failed suicide attack against Balkh’s governor and other senior officials in March shortly before Afghan New Year celebrations.
ISAF also said Monday that Afghan and coalition security forces killed a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Hayatullah, during an operation in Kandahar province. Hayatullah allegedly organized and planned roadside bomb and small-arms fire attacks against Afghan and coalition forces, helped move weapons and plotted assassinations of Afghans who supported the Afghan government.
With most foreign troops leaving, the Taliban is stepping up attacks on Afghan government officials and their supporters, political analysts said, in a bid to strengthen their standing in the post-2014 period.
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Baktash, a special correspondent, reported from Kabul, and Magnier reported from New Delhi.