LAHORE/ISLAMABAD/RAWALPINDI: Pakistan is scrambling for the safe return of the crew of a crashed helicopter from Afghanistan purportedly kidnapped by the Taliban.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the government is exhausting "formal and informal channels" for recovery of the passengers.
A Punjab government Mi-17 chopper, which was on its way to Russia via Uzbekistan for maintenance, crashed in Afghanistan's Logar province on Thursday night, where the crew was reportedly taken hostage by Taliban insurgents.
'In safe hands'
A senior Afghan Taliban commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed all seven passengers were in their custody and that negotiations for their release were ongoing. The commander's claim has not been independently verified.
“They are being looked after, being provided tea, food, everything,” he said. “We are in touch with the Pakistani officials. We conveyed to them that they are in safe hands.”
He added that it was no use seeking help from the Afghan government or US military, because the Taliban are in full control of the district.
Afghan government has 'no control over the area'
Hamidullah Hamid, governor of the Azra district in Logar province, said that all seven people aboard the chopper had been detained by Taliban after the crash.
He said "the government has no control of the area" where the chopper crashed and burst into flames.
The Pakistani government and military did not directly confirm direct talks with the Taliban.
Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Asim Bajwa earlier confirmed that seven people were on board the helicopter including retired military officers and a Russian navigator.
"We are profoundly concerned about the safety of the whole team that was travelling on the helicopter. We have formally requested the government of Afghanistan to help in their safe recovery at the earliest possible," said a statement from the Prime Minister's Office.
The Foreign Ministry said it was in touch with Afghan government officials, with Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz saying consultations with an Afghan delegation are underway at the Foreign Office.
Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to request assistance for safe recovery of the passengers. Ghani assured the COAS of "all possible assistance in this regard".
"We have launched an investigation into the incident... and the government has instructed security forces to spare no efforts to secure the release of the crew members," the Afghan defense ministry said in a statement.
Punjab Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif on Friday visited the families of the helicopter's pilots Col. (retd) Shafiqur Rehman, Col (retd.) Nasir Mehmood and Col. (retd) Safdar Hussein in Lahore and expressed his heartfelt sympathies. He also briefed them on measures being taken to safely recover the crew members.
"The helicopter incident is regrettable but thank God that the crew is safe," the chief minister said.
"I am in contact with the relevant federal agencies in this matter. Our first priority is the safe recovery of the crew. I have faith we will receive some good news soon."
With additional reporting by Imran Gabol.