Pakistan chopper crew home after Afghan hostage drama

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Six crew members of a Pakistani government helicopter which crash-landed in Afghanistan's volatile east have been released, an official said Saturday (Aug 13), after they were taken hostage by the Afghan Taleban.

The crew "was released in an inter-tribe exchange on the Pakistan-Afghan border (and) arrived in Islamabad today," foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said in a statement.

He did not specify who had been holding the crew hostage nor what kind of exchange had secured their release.

All six people - five Pakistanis and a Russian navigator - are "safe and in good health," he said, adding that the helicopter belonged to the Punjab provincial government.

A senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the crew's safe return.

After the Aug 4 crash, local authorities in Afghanistan said that the six-person crew had been taken hostage by the Afghan Taleban.

Militants set the Mi-17 transport helicopter on fire and took the crew to a Taleban-controlled area after it made an emergency landing in Logar province.

The crew included retired Pakistani military officers and a Russian navigator, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported at the time.

Pakistan had sought permission to fly a helicopter - being sent to Russia for overhauling - over Afghan air space.

Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif said he had spoken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after the crash in a bid to secure the crew's release.

"President Ashraf Ghani assured all possible assistance in this regard," he posted on Twitter.

Kabul has long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taleban and continuing to nurture sanctuaries on its soil in the hope of maintaining influence in Afghanistan.

Analysts said it was not clear how the Pakistan government had secured the crew's safe release.

"Our government is tight lipped while the army also did not say anything about the role of the Afghan government," security analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.

The Afghan Taleban have not commented on the conditions of the release.

"One thing is however, very clear - that Afghan Taleban certainly do not want to deteriorate their ties with Pakistan," Askari said.

Askari questioned why the MI-17 was being send to Russia for repairs through Afghan airspace.

"It appeared to be kind of a mysterious exercise," he added.

Pakistan's army uses Russian-made MI-17 helicopters, several of which have crashed in recent years.

In February, an army officer was killed when a military helicopter crashed in northern Pakistan on a routine night training mission.

Last August, 12 people were killed when a helicopter belonging to the army crashed in northwest Pakistan.

And seven people - including two foreign ambassadors - died in May last year when an MI-17 army helicopter crashed at a holiday resort in the hills of Gilgit.