U.S. soldiers free American hostage held near Kabul

Thursday, October 23, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. Special Forces soldiers conducting a nighttime operation freed a kidnapped American working for the Army Corps of Engineers -- the first known hostage rescue by American forces in Afghanistan.

The American, who was abducted in mid-August, had been held in a growing insurgent stronghold 30 miles west of Kabul, U.S. military officials said. They said several insurgents were killed in last week's mission to free him.

Taliban militants have kidnapped dozens of international aid workers, journalists and other foreigners in recent years and have demanded large ransoms or the release of imprisoned Taliban fighters for their freedom. Increasingly aggressive crime syndicates have also raked in big money by kidnapping wealthy Afghans and foreigners and demanding ransoms.

Hostage rescues are rarely attempted and are difficult to pull off successfully. Only two such missions are known to have occurred, both in 2007. In one, both Italian captives were wounded in a raid by Italian commandos.

Last week's rescue came to the attention of the AP after a U.S. military official sought to bring its successful outcome into the public eye. Officials declined to reveal even the smallest detail or the captive's identity, saying they did not want to compromise military tactics or the man's safety.

Three U.S. military officials said Special Forces troops were able to locate the kidnapper's hideaway in the Nirkh district of Wardak province outside Kabul but would not specify how. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

In the case of the rescued American, who had lived in Afghanistan for several years, it was not known whether any ransom demands were made. But a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan said growing insecurity imperils its work to rebuild the country.

"This guy didn't have any money at all. It was like a personal life mission for him to help others," said Bruce J. Huffman, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan.

"We all felt sick about it, because he was never going to be able to pay a ransom. He's over here helping people and they're trying to make a buck off him."

News of the rescue comes on the heels of the targeted killing Monday of a British-South African aid worker by Taliban gunmen who accused her of spreading her Christian faith.

"The hard reality is that more areas are insecure today than they were a year ago. There continues to be a wave of kidnapping -- even in the last few days," Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told the U.S.-Afghan Business Matchmaking Conference on Tuesday in Washington. He said attacks are up 30 percent this year.

Mohammad Hazra Janan, the head of the provincial council in Wardak, where the American was kidnapped, said the number of abductions are "rising every day." He said he knows that large ransoms are being paid.

"There's no rule of law. The government can't prevent these crimes," he said. "Of course the paying of a ransom only encourages that business to grow. But one effect on society is that the businessmen will flee the country."

The Army Corps of Engineers' work building roads and projects that provide clean water and power helps extend the reach of the Afghan government and stimulates economic growth.

"Security has been a real problem, and the Corps of Engineers has been working diligently to build facilities for the Afghan National Army and police in order to foster a secure and stable environment," Huffman said.

The Corps takes precautions to mitigate risk, he said, though he provided no details.

"No one would want to come over here and work if they thought something was going to happen to them," Huffman said. "All our folks are volunteers. Everyone has different reasons why they volunteer and come, but I think most of the people we have get a lot of joy knowing they're making a difference and helping to build a nation."

Chris Klawitter, a German entrepreneur working in Afghanistan, said he knows several Afghan businessmen or their relatives who have been kidnapped.

"Routes are checked more carefully now," he said. "The issue is not the Taliban or al-Qaida, it's more criminal activity which is the main obstacle in traveling nowadays."

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