February 15, 2009 / 7:44 AM / 9 years ago

Pakistani militants free Chinese engineer

(Adds details, Chinese embassy statement, background)

By Kamran Haider

ISLAMABAD, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban militants have freed a Chinese telecommunications engineer after holding him captive for more than five months, a spokesman for the militants and Chinese officials said on Sunday.

Long Xiaowei had been freed as a "goodwill gesture" to the Chinese people, said Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the militants in the northwestern Swat Valley.

"He has been released. He's fine," Khan said.

Security has deteriorated sharply in Pakistan since August, with troops battling Islamic militants in various parts of the northwest as well as along the border with Afghanistan.

Underscoring the poor security situation, President Asif Ali Zardari told CBS in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday that the Taliban had established itself across a large part of Pakistan, forcing the country to fight a war that was about its own survival.

U.S.-led forces toppled the hardline Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001. Elements of the Taliban fled to Pakistan and have joined forces with ethnic Pashtun Pakistani militants in opposing successive governments in Islamabad.

The engineer was seized along with another Chinese colleague and a Pakistani driver and a guard near the Afghan border in August while returning to a guest house after working on a telecommunications tower.

Security forces recovered Long's colleague and the two Pakistanis seven weeks later after they escaped from their captors when they were being shifted to a mountain hideout.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad said in statement that Long had arrived at the mission and would go home soon. The embassy would step up efforts to protect Chinese nationals in Pakistan, China's official Xinhua news agency said.

Islamist militants released a tape earlier this month of them cutting off the head of a Polish geologist, Piotr Stanczak, whom they kidnapped in September.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Zardari late on Saturday, urging the speedy release of a kidnapped American from its refugee agency in southwestern Pakistan, the president's office said in a statement.

John Solecki, head of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Quetta, capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, was kidnapped on Feb. 2 after gunmen ambushed his car and shot dead his driver.

Zardari told Ban the government was focused on finding Solecki. The kidnappers released a video of Solecki on Friday to local media in which he asked the United Nations to help secure his release. Solecki was blindfolded and said he was unwell.

The kidnappers said in a hand-written letter they would kill Solecki if the government failed to release its activists from jail within 72 hours.

(Additional reporting by Junaid Khan and Jason Subler in Beijing, Editing by Dean Yates)

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