World and Nation

Taliban release two Swiss hostages in Pakistan after 18 months

ISLAMABAD — An eight-month ordeal for two Swiss citizens held hostage in northwestern Pakistan ended early Thursday when their Taliban captors set them free, Pakistani security officials said.

The hostages, Daniela Widmer, 29, and Olivier Och, 32, turned up at a military checkpoint in the tribal belt of North Waziristan on Thursday and were flown by helicopter to Peshawar, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army spokesman.

“They are in the custody of the security agencies,” Abbas said. He added that the two Swiss hostages claimed to have escaped from the Taliban.

It was unclear how the Swiss couple, who were abducted as they drove through western Baluchistan province in July, obtained their freedom. Signs aroused suspicion that the Pakistani or Swiss authorities had already agreed to the kidnappers’ demands.

In a video released last week another Taliban hostage, Ajmal Khan, the head of a university in Peshawar, said the government had agreed to pay “millions of rupees” and free 100 prisoners in exchange for the Swiss hostages.

“This could be the result of some deal,” said a security official in Peshawar, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “You can’t just walk away from the militants’ den like this.”

Kidnapping has become a major source of revenue and propaganda for the Pakistani Taliban and associated militant factions based in North and South Waziristan, the tribal agencies at the heart of militant operations, and which have borne the brunt of U.S. drone strikes in recent years.

Widmer and Och were taken from their vehicle in the western province of Baluchistan on July 2, five days after crossing into Pakistan by road from India. They were driving toward the Iranian border, following an overland route to Europe.

Months later, the Taliban released a video of the couple, saying they were being held in a stronghold in Waziristan.

The Taliban demanded $3.3 million in ransom, the release of 100 imprisoned Taliban fighters, and the return of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman currently serving 86 years in prison in the United States for attempting to shoot a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2008.

During the Swiss couple’s captivity, Wali ur Rehman, a senior Taliban commander with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, said the pair were being held separately because they could not prove they were married.