KABUL: New details have emerged of how two French hostages in Afghanistan were freed in exchange for a hefty ransom paid in Pakistan and the release of two brothers from a mafia-style, Taliban-linked group.
French journalists Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier, whose 18-month ordeal made them the longest-held Western hostages in Afghanistan, were released in a painstakingly brokered deal, say experts and Taliban sources.
The French government denied paying any ransom, but Western experts say cash for hostages is routine policy in Europe and interpret the public remarks merely as an attempt to discourage future hostage taking.
The Taliban announced from their fiefdom in southern Afghanistan that there was a prisoner swap for reporter Ghesquiere and cameraman Taponier, but sources close to the case say it was only ever about the money.
"A ransom was paid, an enormous amount, millions of dollars. The money was handed over in Pakistan," a Taliban member close to central command told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The kidnappers were identified as loyalists of Qari Baryal, one of the main Taliban leaders in Kapisa province where the Frenchmen were kidnapped on December 30, 2009, and also seen as close to criminals.
"The Qari Baryal group is very organised and has a good reputation among the Taliban, but sometimes they go against their ideals, such as taking hostages for ransom," the Taliban member said.
Afghanistan's former deputy interior minister General Abdul Hadi Khalid said criminal groups gravitated around Baryal.
A Western expert went further, describing the network as "pure mafia" when talking to AFP on condition of anonymity.
"If you take into account the profile of these 'Taliban', it clearly wasn't a political release and it is highly likely that the ransom was several millions of dollars," the expert said.
Ghesquiere himself told the BBC that he believed that a deal involving money and prisoners secured his release.
In Paris, an official who dealt with the crisis sought to play down talk of a multi-million dollar ransom, but said "apparently hundreds of thousands of euros rather than millions" had exchanged hands.
According to several Taliban sources contacted by AFP, at least two commanders in the Qari Baryal group, identified as brothers Noor Ullah and Abdullah Haq, were released.
One of these sources said 15 other Taliban fighters from different areas were also released in exchange for the two journalists.
Insurgents never publicly admit to taking cash for hostages, which could alienate their sympathisers and harm their propaganda campaign.
But a number of Western hostage takings have ended with wads of cash being handed over, say foreign and Afghan officials.
One source close to the Taliban told AFP that the money was handed over in the infamous Karkhano smugglers market on the edge of Peshawar, gateway to the tribal belt on the Afghan border.
The tribal belt, which lies outside direct government control, is awash with Taliban strongholds and groups affiliated to al Qaeda.
The guarantor received the money about 10 days before handing it over to the kidnappers when the hostages and their Afghan colleague were released, according to another source very close to the Taliban.
"Qari Baryal always had the upper hand in negotiations," said the Taliban source.
Everyone interviewed by AFP said that the central Taliban command of supreme leader Mullah Omar, called the Quetta shura, tried to take over, but in vain.
"Kapisa isn't his area of influence. At the end of the day, the Quetta shura didn't get its way," said the Western expert.
"It is the perfect illustration of centralised Taliban command being an illusion," the expert added.
So if everyone agrees that a sum of money was paid, why did Foreign Minister Alain Juppe insist that France does not pay ransoms?
"No country will ever admit to paying for hostages and especially how much they paid because if the figure gets out, it fixes the price for other hostages," said the Western expert.
"In Europe, practically everone pays for hostages, but not the British, for example," said one of his colleagues.
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