Pakistan's ambassador held by Taliban: TV

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who went missing in February in the Khyber region, appeared on Arabic television on Saturday saying he was being held by the Taliban and urged Islamabad to meet their demands.

Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin appeared in a video tape on Al Arabiya television surrounded by armed militants to make his first public statement since going missing.

“We were kidnapped by mujahideen from the Taliban,” the ambassador, wearing an open-necked shirt and looking calm, said in the remarks which were translated from Urdu into Arabic.

“I suffer health problems such as high blood pressure and heart pains,” said the bespectacled and grey-bearded ambassador, who gestured to his armed captors in an arid, hilly region.

Scores of people have been kidnapped in the dangerous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the ambassador’s disappearance highlighted instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan -- a major ally in the U.S.-led crackdown on militants.

The Pakistani government had not publicly confirmed he had been kidnapped but a senior government official said on Saturday Azizuddin was being held by militants who were demanding the release of their arrested colleagues.

In a message to Pakistan’s foreign ministry undersecretary, its envoys to China and Iran, and his brother, Azizuddin said:

“Because of my health condition I ... appeal to them to do all they can to preserve our lives and meet the demands of the Taliban mujahideen as soon as possible.”

The ambassador was on his way to Kabul from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on February 11 when he disappeared along with his driver and bodyguard in the Khyber tribal region.

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Azizuddin said he, his driver and bodyguard had been held for 27 days at the time the tape was filmed.

According to a senior Arabiya journalist, the ambassador said in the tape that Azizuddin spoke about “the release of any Muslim held in Pakistan whose release is demanded by Taliban”.

This remark appeared to refer to Taliban commander Mullah Mansour Dadullah held by Pakistan, the Arabiya journalist said, adding the tape was sent to the offices of Dubai-based Arabiya.

Two days after he went missing, a spokesman for Pakistani Taliban militants denied they had kidnapped Azizuddin and the Foreign Ministry denied media speculation that the Taliban had demanded the release of Dadullah in exchange for the envoy.


Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said there was no mention of any demands in the four-and-a-half minute tape he had seen and he was not aware of any demands.

“Yes, it is him, but ... we’re not in a position to verify if he’s in the custody of the Taliban,” Sadiq said.

Azizuddin’s captors wore traditional baggy trousers and tunics and two of them held assault rifles but were not pointing them at him as he spoke.

Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin is seen in this undated handout photograph released by the Pakistani embassy in Kabul on February 12, 2008. Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan who went missing in February appeared in a video on Al Arabiya television on Saturday saying that he is being held by Taliban militants and urged his government to meet their demands. REUTERS/Pakistan Embassy Handout

“We have been here for 27 days and we are in a comfortable condition and are being taken care of and respected,” he said.

A Pakistani security official said at the time the envoy was to have changed cars at the border but did not show up. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had said he was sure the envoy had been snatched.

The historic Khyber Pass is the main road link to landlocked Afghanistan in northwestern Pakistan and a main supply route for foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Khyber is notorious for smugglers and bandits, but unlike other parts of the tribal belt on the Afghan border it has been relatively free of violence linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban, though militant activity has picked up in adjoining regions.

Scores of people were killed late last year in clashes between militants loyal to rival clerics in Khyber, and there have been more clashes in recent days.

The security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated markedly since mid-2007, mainly in the northwest, with militants linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda carrying out suicide bombings.

More than 600 people have been killed in militant related violence since the beginning of this year.

Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Robert Birsel