The Taliban took 11 civilians prisoner, including eight Turks and a Russian, after their cargo helicopter made an emergency landing in eastern Afghanistan, officials said Monday, in the first large scale capture of foreigners there in nearly six years.
Security forces dispatched to the remote area retreated after engaging in firefights with the insurgents but failing to secure the area or retrieve the captives.
The crisis began Sunday when the civilian transport aircraft was forced down in strong winds and heavy rain in the village of Dahra Mangal in the Azra district of Logar province, southeast of Kabul, District Governor Hamidullah Hamid told The Associated Press. He said the helicopter came down in a gorge in the densely forested region, known for narrow gorges and rugged mountains, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Pakistani border.
Taliban fighters then captured everyone aboard the helicopter and took them away, Hamid said.
In a telephone interview, Arsala Jamal, the Logar provincial governor, identified the prisoners as eight Turks, one Afghan translator and two foreign pilots of unknown nationality.
Although the capture or kidnapping of foreigners is not uncommon in Afghanistan, large scale captures of foreigners are rare.
The last such instance was in July 2007, when the Taliban abducted 23 South Korean church volunteers as they traveled by bus along a dangerous road in southern Afghanistan. The militants killed two men soon after taking them and later gradually released all the remaining captives over a month.
Last month, the Taliban released a Turkish engineer that they kidnapped two years ago. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said at the time that the engineer was released as a goodwill gesture.
In this case, the foreigners fell into the hands of the Taliban, as opposed to an insurgent initiative aimed at capturing them. Even so, it showed again that the Taliban are still a formidable force facing the Afghan military and police, who will be responsible for security after most foreign forces leave next year.
Stepan Anikeyev, the Russian Embassy's press attache in Kabul, said in a phone interview that a Russian man was being held prisoner. He said the Russians know he was one of the two pilots but could not identify him.
There was no information about the other pilot.
In Ankara, Bulent Arinc, Turkey's deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said eight Turks and two pilots were aboard the helicopter and that Taliban took them prisoner. "We hope that they are rescued as soon as possible and will return to the region where they were working," he said, without saying what the Turks were doing in Afghanistan. The discrepancy in the number of captives could not be immediately reconciled.
"A helicopter that belongs to no military organization made emergency landing in an area of Logar province," Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said.
Security forces were dispatched to the area where the helicopter landed and engaged in firefights with the Taliban but quickly retreated because they had no support, said Logar Deputy Police Chief Rais Khan Abdul Rahimzai.
"We brought the police back because there was no help from the (NATO) coalition or the Afghan army. The police were unable to secure the area, which is very rural, and we were worried," Rahimzai said. He said that information they had from the region was that the prisoners were taken by the Taliban to Hisarak district of neighboring Nangarhar province.
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said there were no members of the force or "U.S. personnel onboard the Turkish helicopter," denying an earlier Taliban claim that they had detained Americans on the aircraft.
ISAF spokeswoman Erin Stattel said the coalition was assisting in the recovery of the aircraft, but would not say how. She could not say whether the helicopter made a precautionary landing or the Taliban had forced it down.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, quoting an unidentified official from the Khorasan company in Kabul, as saying an MI-8 type helicopter it owns made an emergency landing near the town of Azra due to bad weather conditions. There were 11 people on board, including eight Turks, one Afghan and one Russian, Anadolu quoted the official as saying.
The helicopter reportedly belonged to a company called Khorasan Cargo Airlines. No one was answering telephones at Khorasan's offices in Kabul or in Dubai.
Rahimzai said he didn't know what kind of cargo the helicopter was carrying, where it was headed, or whether it was working for NATO.
In other incidents on Monday, six police officers were killed in two separate insurgent attacks in the south, said provincial spokesman Ummar Zawaq.
He said two police officers and two Taliban were killed when insurgents attacked a patrol in the Khan Nashim district, and four police were killed in a firefight in the Marjah district. He said the Taliban took the weapons from the dead police officers after shooting them.