PESHAWAR – Just as tensions between Kabul and Islamabad were at an all-time high over the construction of a border gate on the Pakistani side, a Pakistani helicopter made what was described as a crash landing in Logar province of eastern Afghanistan under ‘mysterious’ circumstances on August 5. All six crew members, including a Russian citizen, have been in captivity of insurgents since then and as of the time we went to press. Officials from both sides have been elliptic in their parlance as what are believed to be negotiations to free the hostages continue. Indeed, there has been no clarity on who is actually holding them as one party’s claims have been contradicted by another and their positions are further contradicted by the ground reality of who controls the turf. The claims could not be immediately independently verified by The Friday Times.
What is known, however, is that the village of Mati in the Azra district, where the landing took place, is part of one of the 400 districts that the Afghan government has lost control of to the Afghan Taliban. The government in Kabul has been battling the Afghan Taliban and other groups in the area, and it has complained that a large number of Taliban fighters from Pakistan had crossed into its territory, as a result of the military operation Zarb-i-Azb against them in Fata, the region that lies on the border of both countries. The area under the Afghan government’s “control or influence” had shrunk to 65.6 percent by the end of May from 70.5 percent near the end of January 2016, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in a report published at the end of July. Thus, there is little doubt that the area where the helicopter made the landing is controlled by the Taliban, explains Ahmed Yar, a local freelance journalist from Nuristan province of Afghanistan, adding, however, that the Afghan Taliban had not used any official channel to communicate whether they held six crew members as hostage.
This has made it easy for rumours to spread. Media outlets in Afghanistan started reporting that the Mi-17 helicopter had been torched by militants, but this was later retracted when official word on the helicopter broke. A spokesperson for the Punjab government said that the carrier belonged to Punjab and that its six people on board, including three retired Pakistan army officials along with a Russian navigator, a pilot and a crew member, were on their way to Uzbekistan when it landed. Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said that the government was chalking out “traditional and all non-traditional ways” to recover the crew members. Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif called Commander Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan General John Nicholson and asked him to help, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations. “Gen. Nicholson has assured all possible help in this regard,” said the Pakistani military’s spokesperson, Lt-Gen. Asim Bajwa.
Meanwhile, though, a high-level meeting headed by President Ashraf Ghani concluded in Kabul and the wordings of the official statement reflected the tensions within. The statement from the president’s office made it clear that the helicopter had formal approval for travelling over the country’s airspace but it added that, “a delegation was assigned to look into the different aspects of the case” and whether “the specifics of the Mi-17 match the ones rendered in the request letter and permission documents”. The statement also asked for a review of the policy to use Afghanistan’s air space.
Given that a Russian citizen is also part of this picture, the assumption would be that his government would be concerned. The Russian citizen was identified as pilot S.K. Sevastyanov, born in 1956, according to Sputnik news. “The servicing in Uzbekistan would also have had a Russian component. Therefore Russia will be involved but discreetly and behind the scene,” explains former foreign secretary and ambassador, Najmuddin A. Shaikh. “They will leave the overt activity to us and our US and Afghan friends.”
A security official told TFT that the helicopter had flown from Peshawar and was bound to Uzbekistan for overhauling. Mi-8/17 helicopters are built at the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant and Kazan Helicopters, both Russian companies. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that the government was using all its resources and the captives would be soon released. However, he did not comment further when asked if the insurgents had put forward any demands. “Nothing that happens in Afghanistan has a simple explanation or solution,” he remarked.
Mi-17 helicopter crashes
- July 2009: An Mi-17 crashes due to a technical fault in Orakzai Agency, killing 26 soldiers
- Oct 2009: An Mi-17 crashes while on a dumping mission at Nawapass, Bajaur, killing six soldiers
- 2015: 8 people are killed, including the ambassadors of Norway and Philippines and the spouses of the
- Indonesian and Malaysian ambassadors, in a crash en route to Gilgit
- 2016: A lieutenant colonel is killed in a crash while on a night trainee mission near Tarbela
TTP, Afghan muddle
Meanwhile, Qari Saifullah, who identifies himself as the spokesperson of the TTP-Hakimullah Mehsud Group, called journalists from an undisclosed location to claim that during the crash the pilot was injured but that the remaining members on board were in good health and being held by local TTP commander Adam Kochi alias Bilal from Logar. This statement was, however, countered by TTP’s spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani who said that neither did such a spokesperson exist nor was such an organization part of the TTP. “We are in contact with Adam Kochi and he has no such information as claimed by the media,” said Khurasani.
To add to the confusion, a Taliban commander affiliated the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but who refused reveal his name told a local radio channel in Logar that they had the six men and were negotiating for their release. He did not specify with whom. “There is no need to appeal to the government of Afghanistan or Nato troops,” he said. “We Taliban rule the entire area.”
Muslim Shirzad, a journalist and a news presenter from Kabul, said that everyone knows that the crew were taken by the Afghan Taliban. He added that a day after the crash the wrecked tail and rotors along with the body was put on a trailer and taken to Kabul where it was placed near the Kabul airport.
UPDATE August 13: AFP reported on Saturday that the hostages were released. It reported the foreign ministry spokesperson Nafees Zakaria as saying that they were “released in an inter-tribe exchange on the Pakistan-Afghan border (and) arrived in Islamabad today”. He He did not specify who had been holding the crew hostage nor what kind of exchange had secured their release.
Muhammad Irfan is a Peshawar-based researcher. He tweets at @irfanyusufzai