Canadian journalist safe after secret Afghan kidnapping ordeal
Globe and Mail Update
November 8, 2008 at 3:47 PM EST
A CBC journalist has arrived safely into the custody of Canadian forces in Kabul after enduring weeks of captivity in a secret kidnapping ordeal.
Mellissa Fung, a correspondent for CBC television, was captured in the early afternoon of Oct. 12 as she returned from a camp on the outskirts of the capital where she had been interviewing Afghans who fled their homes to escape the war.
The CBC requested a news blackout for her safety during weeks of negotiations with her captors. She was believed to be held among the snowy mountains west of Kabul, the latest in a growing number foreign civilians kidnapped in Afghanistan.
“I'm happy to say that I received notice earlier today that Melissa Fung has been freed. This is wonderful news for her family for her colleagues and for all Canadians,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at a news conference in Ottawa this afternoon.
The Globe and Mail
Mr. Harper said he spoke to Ms. Fung earlier Saturday, and that she wanted to convey to her colleagues in the media “that she's OK.”
“She sounded in remarkably good spirits under the circumstances.
Mr. Harper provided almost no information about who had abducted Ms. Fung or why, or about how she was freed. He said revealing such information could betray sensitive security information that could cause harm in other such cases.
But he stated categorically that no ransom, or money of any kind, was paid by the government, the CBC, or any third party.
Such cases are frequently kept secret in Afghanistan, as releasing a hostage can become more difficult if the case is publicized. A Dutch journalist was set free by her Taliban captors on Friday after a similar blackout.
It not clear who held Ms. Fung captive before her release. Several armed groups run kidnapping rings in central Afghanistan, and more than one of them can get involved in any given kidnapping. These groups include the Taliban; allied insurgents such as the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami group; and criminal gangs driven by profit rather than ideology.
Foreigners captured in Afghanistan have been ransomed for $1- to $3-million, making them an important prize any of the factions.
"Mellissa will undergo a full medical evaluation but early indications are that she is well," the CBC said in a statement. “When she is ready, Ms. Fung will be re-united with her family, for which arrangements are under way. Her family has been informed daily of developments since her abduction and have been participants in this process from the beginning.”
Ms. Fung, who holds a Master's degree from Columbia University, is an experienced reporter who has previously visited Afghanistan. After weeks covering the violent province of Kandahar, she was looking forward to flying north for a short stint in the relative security of Kabul where reporters usually take fewer precautions. Foreigners avoid walking the streets of more dangerous cities such as Kandahar, but some aid workers and journalists in the well-guarded capital still roam its safer neighbourhoods without guards or disguises.
The day she disappeared, Oct. 12, she had been interviewing people on the outskirts of Kabul where hundreds of displaced people are camped in ramshackle slum near Qargha Lake. Many of them are fleeing the violence in the southern province of Helmand, and their growing presence near the city has made the camp a popular attraction for journalists.
Ms. Fung's decision to visit the camp without armed protection was not unusual; several other reporters had made the same trip in the previous months, and location was considered "low threat" in an Aug. 20 security assessment by Afghan security forces.
The relatively peaceful parts of Afghanistan have been shrinking rapidly in the face of a rising insurgency, however, and many foreigners in Kabul have been re-thinking their security procedures as the threats grow.
Security consultant Sami Kovanen counted 218 kidnappings in Afghanistan so far this year, as of Nov. 2. In the central region around Kabul, Mr. Kovanen noted 38 kidnappings in the first ten months of 2008, up from 18 kidnappings during the same period in the previous year. Those statistics likely reflect a small fraction of the real total, however, because many kidnappings are never reported.
Most kidnap victims are Afghans, and abductions have become so routine that they're now the second-biggest source of income for the insurgency, according to the U.S. magazine Newsweek. Informal markets exist in Afghanistan where captives are bought and sold depending on their anticipated ransom value, and kidnappers must carefully guard their prisoners to avoid having them stolen by competitors.
Among the five international aid workers reported kidnapped so far this year, two were killed in captivity. The most recent of these abductions happened Monday in a residential neighbourhood of Kabul, when a French aid worker for the educational charity Arfane was taken by gunmen. An Afghan security official was shot dead as he attempted to stop the kidnapping.
U.S. Special Forces conducted a raid in Wardak province last month, setting free a kidnapped American citizen who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. In both the recent Dutch and U.S. cases, no news about their disappearance was published until their release.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
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