Abducted hostage couple, 3 kids rescued from terrorist captivity after 5 years

2017-10-13 10:08
In this undated video grab provided by Site Intelligence Group, hostage Joshua Boyle speaks to the camera while holding his children in an undisclosed location. (Site handout/AFP)

In this undated video grab provided by Site Intelligence Group, hostage Joshua Boyle speaks to the camera while holding his children in an undisclosed location. (Site handout/AFP)

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Washington – Five years after they were seized by a terrorist network in the mountains of Afghanistan, an American woman, her Canadian husband and their children – all three born in captivity – are free after a dramatic rescue orchestrated by the US and Pakistani governments, officials said on Thursday.

The US said Pakistan accomplished the release of Caitlan Coleman of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, and her husband, Canadian Joshua Boyle, who were abducted and held by the Haqqani network, which has ties to the Taliban.

The operation, which came after years of US pressure on Pakistan for assistance, unfolded quickly and ended with what some described as a dangerous raid, a shootout and a captor's final, terrifying threat to "kill the hostage". Boyle suffered only a shrapnel wound, his family said.

US officials did not confirm the details.

"Today they are free," President Donald Trump said in a statement, crediting the US-Pakistani partnership for securing the release. Trump later praised Pakistan for its willingness to "do more to provide security in the region" and said the release suggests other "countries are starting to respect the United States of America once again".

The couple were kidnapped in October of 2012 while on a backpacking trip that took them to Russia, the countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then to Afghanistan. Coleman was several months pregnant at the time, "naive", but also "adventuresome" with a humanitarian bent, her father James told The Associated Press in 2012.

The Pakistani military said early on Thursday the family was "being repatriated to the country of their origin". But as of Thursday evening, it was not known when they would return to North America. They were together in a safe, undisclosed location in Pakistan, according to a US national security official, who wasn't authorised to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Pakistani military said the family had been freed in "an intelligence-based operation by Pakistan troops" after they'd crossed the border from Afghanistan.

Boyle and the High Commissioner for Pakistan to Canada described a scene in which gunshots rang out as Boyle, his wife and their children were intercepted by Pakistani forces while being transported in the trunk of their captors' car.

'Kill the hostage'

Boyle told his parents there was a shootout in which some of his captors were killed and said the last words he'd heard from the kidnappers were "kill the hostage", his father Patrick told reporters after speaking with his son. The younger Boyle also told his father he'd been hit by shrapnel in the leg.

Three intelligence officials said the confrontation happened near a road crossing in the Nawa Kili area of the district of Kohat in northwest Pakistan.

The high commissioner, Tariq Azim Khan, said, "We know there was a shootout and Pakistan commandos carried out an attack and rescued the hostages."

A US military official said a military hostage team had flown to Pakistan on Wednesday, prepared to fly the family out. The team did a preliminary health assessment and had a transport plane ready to go.

But sometime after daybreak there, as the family members were walking to the plane, Boyle said he did not want to board.

Boyle's father said his son did not want to board the plane because it was headed to Bagram Air Base, a site associated with accusations of prisoner abuse, and Boyle was philosophically opposed to going to there. Another US official said Boyle was nervous about being in "custody" given his family ties.

He was once married to Zaynab Khadr, the older sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr and the daughter of a senior al-Qaeda financier. Her father, the late Ahmed Said Khadr, and the family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy.

The Canadian-born Omar Khadr was 15 when he was captured by US troops following a firefight and was taken to the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. Officials had discounted any link between that background and Boyle's capture, with one official describing it in 2014 as a "horrible coincidence".

The US Justice Department said neither Boyle nor Coleman are wanted for any federal crime.

The couple told US officials and their families they wanted to fly commercially to Canada.

'Miracle' rescue

Boyle's father called the rescue a "miracle". Coleman's parents, Jim and Lyn Coleman, meanwhile posted a statement on the door of their Pennsylvania home expressing joy. Lyn Coleman said "I am in a state of euphoria, stunned and overjoyed," in an interview with ABC News.

The developments came rapidly on Wednesday afternoon – nearly five years to the day after Coleman and Boyle lost touch with their families while travelling in a mountainous region near the Afghan capital of Kabul.


In this undated video grab provided by Site Intelligence Group, hostages, American Caitlan Coleman (L) and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle, speak to the camera holding their children in an undisclosed location. (Site handout/AFP)

Coleman's parents last had a conversation with their son-in-law on October 8, 2012, via an email sent from an internet cafe he'd described as being in an "unsafe" part of Afghanistan. From then on, there were only desperate hostage videos released by their captors and hand-scrawled letters mailed home.

"I pray to hear from you again, to hear how everybody is doing," read one letter the parents shared with the online Circa News service in July 2016, in which Coleman revealed she'd given birth to a second child in captivity. It's unclear whether they knew she'd had a third.

Boyle's parents say their son told them in a letter that he and his wife pretended to the children that their signs of captivity were part of a game being played with guards.

Holding hostages for ransom

US officials call the Haqqani group a terrorist organisation and have targeted its leaders with drone strikes. But the group also operates like a criminal network. Unlike the Islamic State (ISIS) group, it does not typically execute Western hostages, preferring to ransom them for cash.

The Haqqani network had previously demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, a son of the founder of the group, in exchange for turning over the American-Canadian family. In one of the videos released by their captors, Boyle implored the Afghan government not to execute Taliban prisoners or he and his wife would be killed.

The US has long criticised Pakistan for failing to aggressively go after the Haqqanis. In recent remarks on his Afghanistan policy, Trump noted billions paid to Pakistan "at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately".

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said her country was "greatly relieved" the family was safe, and she thanked the US, Afghan and Pakistani governments for their efforts.

US officials have said that several other Americans are being held by militant groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

They include Kevin King, 60, a teacher at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul who was abducted in August 2016, and Paul Overby, an author in his 70s who had travelled to the region several times but disappeared in eastern Afghanistan in mid-2014.

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Read more on:    pakistan  |  us  |  canada  |  security  |  kidnappings

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