May 17, 2008 / 6:23 AM / 9 years ago

Taliban release Pakistan envoy after fighters freed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Taliban militants freed a kidnapped Pakistani ambassador on Saturday after the release of more than 40 Taliban fighters in recent days, a senior security official said.

Pakistan's envoy to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, was abducted on February 11 while traveling from the northwestern city of Peshawar to the Afghan border, on his way back to Kabul.

Azizuddin was held by fighters loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in neighboring South Waziristan, said the security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said more than 40 Taliban fighters held captive by the authorities had been released over the past few days.

Pakistan's most senior Interior Ministry official earlier denied that the envoy was released as a result of any prisoner swap and said there had been some kind of action.

Azizuddin said he was unaware of any clash between the militants and security forces.

The Taliban released several members of the security forces in return for the release of the fighters, the official said. It was unclear whether the ambassador, one of Mehsud's main bargaining chips, was exchanged for a specific militant.

Azizuddin told a television channel he was driven by his captors for three hours and dropped off outside a paramilitary camp in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.

"I just walked in and introduced myself and from thereon I was brought here," he told Dawn News.

The ambassador, reunited with his family in Islamabad, said his driver and guard had also been set free.

"His recovery has come as a result of a law enforcement action," said Rehman Malik, adviser to the prime minister for the interior ministry's affairs.

"No deal took place. No exchange of terrorists. No exchange of individuals."

Moved Around

The security official said the envoy was abducted by one of several kidnap gangs operating in and around the Khyber Pass, linking landlocked Afghanistan with Pakistan's northwest.

Azizuddin was subsequently passed on to the Pakistani Taliban, who moved him to South Waziristan, at the southeast end of the tribal belt, according to the official. The envoy told Dawn he believed the same people were with him throughout.

Last month, Azizuddin appeared in a video on an Arabic television saying he was being held by the Taliban and urging the Pakistani government to meet their demands.

Pakistan's new government, sworn in at the end of March, has begun a policy of engagement, negotiating through tribal leaders to persuade Mehsud to halt militant operations from the region.

NATO has expressed concern that attacks on its own forces in Afghanistan had increased since Pakistan began negotiating.

Mehsud gained infamy after the Pakistan government and the U.S. CIA made him prime suspect in the assassination last December of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Mehsud has denied any role in her killing and the new government, led by Bhutto's party, wants a U.N. investigation because it does not trust the previous government's findings.

(Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar, Kamran Haider and Aftab Borka)

For a Reuters blog about Pakistan see blogs.reuters.com/pakistan

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