|Monday, February 16, 2009
By our correspondent
PESHAWAR: The government has released over a dozen Taliban prisoners, several of them from Waziristan, for securing the release of the Chinese telecommunications engineer, Long Xiaowei, official and militant sources said on Sunday.
Long Xiaowei was freed on Saturday after 170-day captivity and shifted to Chinese Embassy in Islamabad. Militants loyal to Maulana Fazlullah had kidnapped him along with his colleague Zhuang Guo from Khal town of Lower Dir district on August 29. Both the captives attempted to escape on October 17, 2007, in which Zhuang succeeded to get away but Long got his leg fractured in the move.
The government functionaries have been tight-lipped about the deal between the militants and the government for the release of the engineer but The News has learnt that the government swapped Long Xiaowei for more than a dozen Taliban prisoners.
“Yes, a number of militants were freed to secure the release of the Chinese engineer,” an official, who has full knowledge of the deal, told The News. He, however, refused to give the exact figure of the prisoners released in exchange for the engineer.
“Efforts were intensified to secure his release before the president’s (Asif Ali Zardari) upcoming visit to China. It’s a gift to the people of China on the occasion of his visit and it is also expected that the president will take him (Long) along to China,” the source added.
However, another official ruled out the release of any Taliban by the government in exchange for the Chinese hostage. He said the government exercised pressure and made the Taliban to free the Chinese.
The government was under immense pressure for the release of the Chinese engineer after the beheading of a Polish geologist, Piotr Stanczak, by Darra Adamkhel Taliban militants. The already beleaguered government of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was further troubled when the Polish government termed the video of his beheading authentic.
Also, pressure mounted on President Zardari when UN chief Ban Ki-moon asked him the day Long was released to take measures for the early and safe release of American UN official, John Solecki, kidnapped from Quetta. His captors have also threatened to kill him within 72 hours of his recently released video, if the government did not meet their demands.
The official source insisted that some prisoners were freed on Saturday, paving the way for Long’s release the same day. Earlier, militants were denying any deal for freeing the captive engineer and insisted the move was made as a “goodwill gesture”. However, when told about the release of Taliban prisoners in exchange for the foreign engineer, spokesman for Swat militants, Muslim Khan, reluctantly confirmed to had got released the Taliban prisoners for letting Long Xiaowei go.
“Over the last one week, the government freed several Taliban prisoners, but most of them were ordinary fighters. Actually, majority of the prisoners released hailed from Waziristan,” he claimed, refusing to divulge their exact number and identities.
“If they were key the Taliban prisoners, they would have included my own brother,” Muslim said, replying to a question. The security forces have arrested his brother and son-in-law months ago from Makanbagh area of Mingora city of Swat valley.
Another source close to Maulana Fazlullah and his militants told The News that 16 important Swat Taliban commanders were released on Saturday in exchange for the kidnapped Chinese national. However, from Muslim Khan’s conversation, it seemed that the number of released Taliban was higher than that.
Earlier, efforts for the release of the kidnapped Chinese ended in smoke, as the government was not willing to accept the demand of the militants to free 136 Taliban prisoners, besides other demands. The militants had been refusing to release Long without their demands met by the government.
Several attempts were made to contact the spokesman for the NWFP government, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, to get the government’s version on the deal, but he did not receive the calls. A press release of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad said that they had received Long. “He has safely arrived at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad. He will go back to China soon to reunite with his family. This embassy along with Mr Long wishes to extend sincere thanks to the efforts by relative departments of Pakistan for his safe release,” the press release said. “He is dismayed but in good health,” deputy head of China’s mission in Islamabad, Yao Jing, said of the engineer who had a fractured leg. (The News)