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ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan military said the captors of a US-Canadian family held by the Taliban fled on foot after troops shot at their vehicle’s tyres, as it offered a fuller account on Friday of the operation to rescue the hostages.

American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle — who were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 and had all three of their children in captivity — have left Pakistan after being freed, according to a US official.

Pakistan, which has long been accused of having links to groups such as the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, has faced increased pressure from Washington to crack down on militants after it was lambasted by US President Donald Trump in August. The army said it launched the rescue operation after a tip-off from US intelligence that the family had been moved into Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas from across the border in Afghanistan.

• Militants ‘fled on foot’ when troops shot out tyres of their vehicle • US-Canadian couple, their three children leave by London-bound PIA flight

Residents in the tribal districts of Kurram, where the operation took place, and North Waziristan said they had seen drones flying in the skies above them for several days before the operation.

Military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistan was told by US intelligence at 4pm on Wednesday that the hostages were on the move. “We sent our troops, traced the vehicle on the basis of intelligence sharing by 1900 hours yesterday (Wednesday) and recovered the hostages,” he said in televised comments on Thursday night.

Forces had planned to intercept the vehicle at a security checkpoint in Kurram, but the militants drove it off the road, a security source said.

Troops tried to stop the vehicle once it had travelled a few miles over the border. “But when the militants refused to halt, they shot out its tyres,” Maj Gen Ghafoor told AFP. The militants “fled on foot”, leaving the family in the car, he said, adding that soldiers had not wanted to risk injuring the hostages by firing on their fleeing captors.

On Thursday night, a US military official told AFP that the couple was hesitating to board a US military jet in Pakistan over Boyle’s concerns he could face American scrutiny over his previous marriage to the sister of a Guantanamo detainee.

In 2009, he was briefly married to Zaynab Khadr, the sister of Canadian-born Omar Khadr, who spent a decade at Guantanamo.

Canadian and US officials have said Boyle is not being investigated.

Timing

Some unnamed US and Canadian officials have cast doubt on Pakistan’s version of the rescue, hinting in North American media that the recovery was more of a “negotiated handover”.

A government source in Kabul told AFP that they had informed the US and Canada in 2015 that the hostages had been transferred to Pakistan’s tribal areas.

“It means Pakistan could have released them far earlier... But due to the tension with the US they felt it was the right moment,” the source continued.

A senior Taliban commander also denied the military’s account to AFP, saying the militants had released the hostages of their own volition after pressure on both sides of the border.

Boyle and Coleman appeared in a hostage video in December last year with two of their children pleading for their release.

The video was released after rumours swirled in Kabul that the government was planning to execute Anas Haqqani, son of the Haqqani network’s founder, who has been held since 2014.

Anas Haqqani is still believed to be in the custody of Afghan intelligence.

On Friday, Afghan interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish told AFP that there had been no prisoner swaps after questions over whether a deal had been struck to secure the hostages’ release. The Taliban are thought to be holding American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weekes, professors at the American University of Afghanistan who were dragged from vehicles in Kabul by gunmen last year.—AFP

Mohammad Asghar from Rawalpindi adds: The US-Canadian couple and their three children left Islamabad in Pakistan International Airlines flight on Friday, security sources said.

According to them, Coleman, Boyle and their children – Najaeshi, Dhakwoen and Maidah – were brought to Benazir Bhutto International Airport amid tight security and no one was allowed to come close or talk to them. They later boarded a London-bound PIA flight PK-786. However, their final destination was not known.

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2017