KABUL, Afghanistan — Eleven people, including eight Turkish nationals, were captured after their helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in eastern Afghanistan in an area largely controlled by the Taliban, local authorities said Monday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the abductions and said the passengers on the flight were actually NATO soldiers posing as civilians. Local officials and a NATO spokesman denied the passengers were soldiers.
The private helicopter was carrying mechanical supplies and technical staff from a project in eastern Khowst province to Kabul on Sunday evening when it made a hard landing in the Azra district of eastern Logar province because of bad weather, said Din Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for the governor of Logar.
The Taliban seized everyone aboard, Darwish said, adding that the Afghan government had launched a rescue mission.
The mountainous, sparsely populated Azra district is largely controlled by Taliban forces who often move across the porous border between Afghanistan and restive northwest Pakistan.
Darwish identified those aboard as seven Turkish engineers, two Russian pilots and an Afghan interpreter. However, the Logar provincial governor, Arsala Jamal, told the Associated Press that those seized included eight Turks, one Afghan translator and two foreign pilots of unknown nationality. Stepan Anikeyev, the Russian Embassy’s press attache in Kabul, confirmed that a Russian pilot was among those being held.
An official with the Turkish foreign ministry in Ankara said its information was that there were eight Turks, one Afghan and one Russian aboard the aircraft.
“Afghan authorities with local leaders are trying to ascertain where they are,” the official said, requesting that his name not be used, adding that the helicopter had been found empty. “We understand they’re in good health. No one knows what exactly happened when they landed.”
John Manley, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed that a civilian helicopter had gone down in eastern Afghanistan and said ISAF was assisting in the recovery operation.
In an email to news organizations, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and said there were 11 people on the aircraft who were posing as civilians but were in fact NATO troops wearing U.S. uniforms.
“Mujahedeen immediately surrounded the chopper, detained all 11 foreigners aboard and completely destroyed the helicopter, which belongs to the foreign forces, by setting it alight,” it said in a message signed by the “spokesman of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The message attributed to the Taliban said all those aboard were transferred to “the most secure region of the nation” – presumably a Taliban stronghold – after being captured alive.
“The foreign forces, by disassociating themselves from the helicopter, are trying to make it seem as if the detainees are civilians,” the message added. “But denial will not benefit them as all were captured while wearing American military uniforms.”
Manley said the Taliban was wrong about the uniforms. “There’s absolutely no truth to that,” he said.