Afghanistan says negotiating release of helicopter hostages

KABUL Tue Apr 23, 2013 4:48am EDT

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KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban may free a group of mainly Turkish hostages captured when their helicopter made an emergency landing in a Taliban-controlled area of eastern Afghanistan as early as Tuesday night, a provincial official said.

Negotiations between village leaders and the Taliban were underway, and that was leading to hopes they could be freed within hours, a spokesman for the governor of Logar province told Reuters.

"Tribal elders are playing an important role in this incident - they have already talked with the Taliban and we hope the hostages could be freed this evening," Din Mohammad Darwish said.

The eight Turkish engineers, an Afghan and two pilots from Russia and Kyrgyzstan were onboard a Russian Mi-8 helicopter when it made a "hard landing" in a remote part of Logar province due to bad weather on Sunday afternoon.

They were taken captive by the insurgency, which controls the area, according to officials and a Taliban spokesman.

A group of police were sent to Azra district to investigate on Monday but were fired upon by unknown men and had to leave, Rais Khan Sadiq, the deputy head of Logar police, said, adding that there is no NATO or Afghan army presence in the district.

Since being captured the eleven had been moved from Logar's conflict-riven Azra district to Hesarak district in neighboring Nangarhar province, Sadiq said.

No operation to rescue the hostages was being planned while the village elders negotiated with the Taliban, Sadiq said.

"We want to solve this problem with mediation of local elders. If we don't reach any conclusion then we will plan a military operation," he said.

He also denied a Taliban statement that the helicopter had been set fire by the insurgents, saying it had been seen by police and it was still intact.

The engineers from a Turkish construction company were returning to Kabul from the eastern border province of Khost, when the helicopter, owned by air charter company Khorasan Cargo Airlines, was forced to land.

Both the Russian and Turkish foreign ministries have confirmed they had citizens aboard the helicopter.

Helicopter crashes and "hard landings" happen relatively frequently in mountainous Afghanistan.

In August 2011, 30 U.S. special forces soldiers, seven Afghans and an interpreter were killed when a Chinook transport helicopter was shot down, the deadliest single incident for foreign troops in more than a decade of war.

Khorasan flies Russian Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters as well as fixed-wing aircraft in Afghanistan. They offer troops and cargo transportation as well as medivac and civilian transportation services.

(Reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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