Taliban seize international hostages from helicopter

A helicopter carrying foreign nationals made an emergency landing due to poor weather conditions in Afghanistan, where they were seized by the Taliban.

Hoshang Hashimi/AP
Former Taliban militants stand in line, hand-cuffed after turning in their weapons during a ceremony with the Afghan government in Herat, Afghanistan in early April.

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A group of Turkish engineers and their pilots were captured late last night by the Taliban after their helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in eastern Afghanistan.

BBC News reports that the civilian helicopter was carrying seven Turkish construction workers, two Russian pilots, and an Afghan when it was forced down by bad weather and seized by insurgents in the Azra district of Logar province, located south of Kabul. The Taliban confirmed to BBC that they were holding the group.

There are conflicting reports on the exact composition of the captured group. Reuters writes that there were eight Turks and only one Russian pilot, as well as an Afghan, while Agence France-Presse cites the group as containing only eight Turks and one Afghan. An emailed statement from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the crew included American military officers, but the insurgents frequently make false battlefield claims.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu told the press that the captives were believed to be in good health, and that Turkish officials were in contact with their Afghan counterparts about the situation, reports Reuters.

American military newspaper Stars & Stripes reports that the helicopter came down next to a former medical clinic that is now being used as a military post by the Taliban, according to Logar Provincial Council member Dr. Abdul Wali Wakil, who is from Azra district.

Wakil said he and other provincial representatives are working with tribal leaders to negotiate for the hostages’ release and warned that it was not the time for military action. He said the Taliban are strong in the area and that no other insurgent groups operate there.

“The Taliban took them to the mountains,” Wakil said. “Right now we are seriously looking into this issue because we are afraid if a military action is taken, maybe it will have negative results, maybe civilian casualties or damage.”

The BBC notes that civilian helicopter flights occur frequently in Afghanistan, averaging 100 per day across the country, and are a "vital link for remote bases, carrying workers and supplies." Reuters adds that crashes and "hard landings" are relatively frequent occurrences there.

Reporting last March, when a Turkish helicopter crash in Afghanistan killed at least 12 soldiers, The Christian Science Monitor noted that Turkey contributes 1,845 troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Most of those troops are stationed in Kabul.

The Monitor also noted that while most of the Western nations that contribute forces to the ISAF are growing weary of the conflict in Afghanistan and are under pressure from their respective publics to withdraw, Turkey has a much closer connection to the country. As such, incidents like last year's crash – or this weekend's kidnapping – are not apt to change attitudes in Ankara toward Afghanistan.

“Turkey sees opportunities in Afghanistan quite differently than France would or any other player in Western Europe,” Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, told the Monitor last year. "There are cultural ties, there are ethnic ties, historical ties, and all of these factors play into the calculus of how Ankara would view an incident like this."

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