A Turkish transport helicopter carrying at least 11 civilians was forced to make an emergency landing in a Taliban-controlled area in eastern Afghanistan, and the insurgents took all the people on board prisoner, including eight Turks and a Russian, officials said Monday.
The civilian aircraft landed in strong winds and heavy rain on Sunday 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 kilometres from the Pakistani border.
The Taliban fighters then captured everyone aboard the helicopter and took them away, Hamid said.
No information on hostages' condition
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.
In Ankara, a spokesman at Turkey's Foreign Ministry confirmed that eight Turks were aboard the helicopter but had no information on their condition or what had happened to them after the emergency landing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with ministry regulations.
Stepan Anikeyev, the Russian Embassy's press attaché 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 they don't have details about his identity yet, and they are in "constant touch" with local officials in Afghanistan.
There was no information about the other pilot.
"A helicopter that belongs to no military organization made emergency landing in an area of Logar province," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. "We have sent our police forces to the area to investigate the situation, to find out the reason of the landing and to know who was in the helicopter, how many of them were there and their whereabouts at the moment."
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 neighbouring Nangarhar province.
Repeated calls to NATO unanswered, local governor says
Hamid said that repeated calls for the Afghan army or NATO help went unanswered, and police were unable to secure the area, 15 kilometres from the district police compound in the town of Azra.
NATO confirmed that the Turkish helicopter went down on Sunday, but the International Security Assistance Force did not have any other details. It did say there were "no ISAF" 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 Logistics company in Kabul, said an MI-8 type helicopter belonging to the company 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.
Although the capture or kidnapping of foreigners is not uncommon in Afghanistan, large scale captures of foreigners are rare.
The last such instance occurred in July 2007 when the Taliban abducted 23 South Korean church volunteers as they travelled 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.