PESHAWAR, May 17: Militants released Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, on Friday night after holding him in captivity for 97 days.

His release came after protracted negotiations between the government and militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, with tribal leaders acting as go-between. Mr Azizuddin was handed over to the military authorities in Razmak, North Waziristan, from where he was flown to the Army’s brigade headquarters at Zari Noor for debriefing.

He was later flown to Peshawar for onward journey to Islamabad.

Mr Azizuddin had been kidnapped from the Khyber tribal region on Feb 11 while on his way to Kabul. Clean-shaven when kidnapped, he grew a long beard in captivity. “He had only a toothbrush with him,” said an official.

The official said that immediately after his kidnapping at the highway that links Pakistan with Afghanistan, he was taken to the remote Terah Valley, in Khyber tribal region, and then to neighbouring Orakzai Agency.

“He was not kept in Khyber for a single day. He was first shifted to Orakzai and after 15 to 20 days, taken to South Waziristan. The kidnappers drove him through Spinwam and Mirali, in North Waziristan,” the official said.

Mr Azizuddin’s last stay before his release was reportedly in Shaktoi, a small town in the Mehsud-dominated part of South Waziristan.

“The first couple of days were hard on him. But later his captors treated him well,” the official said.

He insisted that Mr Azizuddin’s kidnappers initially did not know who he was. “They just spotted a vehicle bearing a red registration number plate and thought that it was carrying someone important.

“It dawned on them later that the guy they were holding was an ambassador.”

The ambassador remained with the Taliban, although the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — an umbrella organisation of militant groups — had denied it was holding him.

The militants released a video on April 19 in which the ambassador had appealed to the government to negotiate with the kidnappers for his release. In the video the ambassador had said that he was worried about his health due to a heart condition.

The official insisted that Azizuddin’s captors released him as a goodwill gesture following the prisoners’ swap between the militants and the authorities and the military pullout from the Mehsud part of South Waziristan.

“There has been no ransom paid and no special prisoner exchange in this case,” he maintained.

THE OTHER SIDE: Some sources, however, claim that the government had not only paid $2.5 million for his release, but also agreed to release three associates of detained Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah.

The militants also wanted the release of former Taliban leader Mullah Obaidullah and Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah, but the government made it abundantly clear that this was not possible, sources said.

Pakistani authorities have released 50 militants in return for the release of army and paramilitary personnel and some government officials.

The official who spoke to Dawn said the militants were still holding 20 to 25 paramilitary personnel and their release was still awaited. “But major hurdles have been cleared. The army has been pulled back, exchange of major prisoners has taken place and the ambassador released.

“Now the road has been cleared for signing of the peace agreement,” the official said.

Dawn understands that a 16-point draft agreement is ready for signing, but NWFP Governor Owais Ghani is awaiting a go-ahead signal from the federal government.

“We are ready when the federal government is ready,” the official remarked. “As soon as we get the green signal, we will go ahead,” the official said.

Alamgir Bhittani contributed to this story

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