An American-Canadian couple and their three children left Pakistan for the United Kingdom Friday after five years in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan, officials confirmed to VOA.
Acting on a tip from U.S. intelligence, Pakistani troops rescued U.S. national Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, from the Kurram tribal region near the Afghan border Wednesday.
A U.S. plane is standing by, waiting to fly them to what is expected to be a U.S. military base in Germany for a medical checkup, but news reports said Boyle has been reluctant to board the aircraft. The reasons for that were unclear.
Coleman and Boyle went missing while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012. The Afghan Taliban later claimed responsibility for kidnapping them.
Prisoner exchange sought
The group, which released two videos of the hostages while they were in captivity, had been demanding the release of their prisoners in exchange for Boyle and his wife. While in captivity, the couple had three children, who were rescued with them.
President Donald Trump praised the release of the family from "captivity from the Haqqani network, a terrorist organization with ties to the Taliban." He also called the development a "positive moment" in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
"The Pakistani government's cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America's wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region," he said in a statement. "We hope to see this type of cooperation and teamwork in helping secure the release of remaining hostages and in our future joint counterterrorism operations."
He later told reporters that he thought Pakistan had "started to respect the United States again."
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave reporters almost no information on the operation that led to the family's freedom, other than to say, "It's a very good moment and we intend to work with Pakistan in a collaborative way in the future to stop terrorism that includes kidnapping."
Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, speaking to VOA's Urdu service, said, "The operation was carried out on the basis of intelligence shared with us. When these people who were abducted by the Afghan group were being transferred from Afghanistan to Pakistan, our security institutions swiftly acted on that intelligence and we were able to recover them safely.
"This is proof that if the United States and Pakistan work together in partnership, we can achieve so much to bring peace to Afghanistan and the region."
Terrorist group designation
The Haqqani network, whose leader is also deputy chief of the Afghan Taliban, is considered a terrorist group by the U.S.
Pakistani army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor provided VOA with details of the operation to rescue the captives.
“We swiftly deployed our troops soon after U.S. officials informed us at around 4 p.m. (local time) Wednesday the Taliban were transporting the hostages in a vehicle to the Pakistani side of the border. We traced the vehicle and safely recovered the hostages,” Ghafoor said, adding that U.S.-Pakistani cooperation was key to the mission.
A U.S. defense official said the hostages were not in U.S. custody. "A U.S. plane was available for them and they chose not to depart on it," he told VOA.
Coleman, 31, and Boyle, 33, in their last video message released in December 2016, urged then-President-elect Trump to negotiate with the Taliban to secure their release in return for Taliban prisoners.
Word of the couple's release came as Lisa Curtis, National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia, visited Islamabad as the head of a high-level U.S. delegation and held talks with Pakistani officials at the Foreign Ministry.
An official statement issued at the end of the visit Thursday said the two sides reviewed the state of their bilateral relationship in the wake of the new U.S. strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia and agreed to continue discussions on all matters of mutual interest.
Meanwhile, American Kevin King, 60, and Australian Timothy Weeks, 48, were being held hostage in Afghanistan. The two teachers, with the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, were kidnapped at gunpoint near the campus in August 2016.
In a video the Taliban released in June, the hostages begged Trump to negotiate their freedom with the Islamist insurgent group.
VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.