x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Taliban free Chinese engineer

Pakistani Taliban militants free a Chinese engineer held captive for nearly six months, as fears rise for the safety of an abducted American.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistani Taliban militants have freed a Chinese engineer held captive for nearly six months, officials said today, as fears rose for the safety of an abducted American threatened with imminent death by his kidnappers. It was not immediately clear what prompted Long Xiaowei's release, including whether a ransom was paid or militants were freed in exchange, but the news he was safe was a rare bright spot in a month of heightened security concerns for foreigners in Pakistan. Mr Long's release came days before a visit to China by the Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari. Earlier this month, a Polish geologist held by Taliban fighters was apparently beheaded on a video obtained by news media and authorities and believed by the Polish government to be authentic.

On Friday, the kidnappers of an American UN official John Solecki threatened to kill him within 72 hours and issued a 20-second video of a blindfolded Mr Solecki saying he was "sick and in trouble". The abductions have underscored the overall deteriorating security conditions in Pakistan, a critical US ally in the fight against terrorism, as it battles a Taliban insurgency in its north-west regions bordering Afghanistan. On Saturday, a US missile strike on a compound in the area where dozens of Taliban militants had gathered killed 27 people, intelligence officials said. China also is a major ally and longtime financial supporter of Pakistan, and the Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing attached high importance to the case of the kidnapped engineer.

Mr Long was let go yesterday and taken to the Chinese embassy this morning, said Yao Jing, the deputy head of China's mission in Islamabad. The engineer appeared in good condition and expected to go back to China after a medical check-up, China's foreign ministry said. Mr Long and his colleague, an engineer Zhang Guo, were kidnapped in August in the Dir region of north-west Pakistan. They both escaped in mid-October, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency. Mr Long injured his ankle and was recaptured, while Mr Zhang got away.

The Chinese ministry added the engineer returned to the embassy under the escort of Pakistani military and police, but it did not give any details of how he came into Pakistani custody. Mr Yao also said he did not know if a deal with struck with the militants. However, Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley, claimed the militants freed the Chinese captive after the government agreed to impose Islamic law in their region.

* AP