ISLAMABAD - An American-Canadian couple and their three children left Pakistan for U.K. on Friday after five years in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan.
Acting on a tip from U.S. intelligence, Pakistani officials say their troops rescued U.S. national Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, on Wednesday hours after their captors transported them in a car to the Pakistani this side of the long porous Afghan border.
The Pakistanmilitary revealed details of the operation on Thursday.
A U.S. plane was standing by at the military airbase in Islamabad, waiting to fly the family to a U.S. military base in Germany for a medical checkup, but Pakistani security sources told VOA Boyle refused to board the flight fearing their “scrutiny”.
Instead, the family boarded Pakistan’s state-run carrier and left for U.K.
Coleman and Boyle went missing while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012. The Afghan Taliban later claimed responsibility for kidnapping them. U.S. officials maintain the couple was in captivity of the Haqqani terrorist organization linked to the Taliban.
The insurgent 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.
One of the prisoners the militants wanted to be freed is Annas Haqqani, who is on death row in an Afghan prison. The detainee is the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani who heads the Haqqani network and also serves as a deputy to the leader of the Taliban.
A senior Taliban official when contact by VOA claimed the Coleman and Boyle “converted to Islam” while in captivity.
“The Taliban need not have to keep them hostage and thought they be freed to go anywhere they wanted to because their hardships as an extended family were increasing in captivity,” the official said requesting anonymity.
U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed hope the hostages' release could represent a turning point in traditionally mistrusted-marred relations between the two countries and it could lead to better cooperation between the uneasy allies in fighting Taliban and other Islamist extremists in Afghanistan.
"Both sides, U.S. and Pakistan, they have agreed to remain engaged in the future as well for better cooperation and better understanding of each other's concerns and also how to deal with the challenges,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said Friday.
Washington has long alleged Islamabad maintains ties to the Haqqanis and the Taliban helping them expand and prolong the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistani officials deny the allegations and touted Wednesday’s successful hostage rescue operation as another demonstration of its counterterrorism resolve and cooperation with the U.S.
"We have been taking on the terrorists. And we have also said in the past as well that if we have the intelligence provided by the U.S., then we will be able to take action. So we have taken action based on the intelligence that was provided by the U.S. side,” noted Zakaria while speaking to reporters in Islamabad.
President Donald Trump on Thursday 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 believes Pakistan "is 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."
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.
Coleman, 31, and Boyle, 33, in their last video message released in December 2016, urged then-President-elect Donald 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, an American, Kevin King, 60, and an Australian Timothy Weeks, 48, are 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 President Trump to negotiate their freedom with the Islamist insurgent group.