LAHORE - The six-member crew of a Punjab government helicopter, which had crash-landed in Afghanistan on August 4, safely returned to Pakistan yesterday after they were freed by Afghan Taliban.

Influential tribal and religious leaders played the key role for the release of passengers of chief minister’s M-17 helicopter, officials told The Nation.

The crew members were taken hostage by the Taliban after the chopper made emergency landing in Azra district of Logar province of the neighbouring country after it developed some technical fault while flying to Uzbekistan for maintenance.

A group of more than six people including tribal and religious leaders having ‘say’ on both sides of the Durand-Line played an important part in their safe return to Islamabad.

These religious leaders belong to a powerful religious seminary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has its chains in Fata along the Pak-Afghan border, officials said. Many of the top and mid-ranking Taliban are the former students of mentioned chain of madaris.

The tribal leaders whose help was sought also enjoy close ties with tribes of Logar province and the Taliban high command.

Besides them, retired security officials and diplomats who had dealt with Afghan Taliban matters assisted and facilitated the return, officials said.

The released Punjab officials are: Capt Safdar Hussain (Chief pilot), Capt Safdar Ashraf, Capt Muhammad Shafiq-ur-Rehman (First Officer),Nasir Mahmood (Flight Engineer), Mr Muhammad Kausar (Crew Chief) and Sergei Sevastianov (Russian navigator).

Afghan Taliban scouting boys handed over the captured men to the team of tribal and religious leaders, and former security officials somewhere near Pul-i-Alam, the capital of Logar province, the officials said.

According to officials informed about the rescue process, Afghan government has almost no role in the entire effort. The official give no response when asked what the Taliban had demanded in return for the release and how the crew members were transported to Pakistan if Kabul had no role in the process.

However, sources close to the team of tribal and religious leaders told The Nation that local Taliban released the copter travellers unconditionally following the directions of their high command.

Staff Reporter from Islamabad adds: The rescued crew members were handed over by the team of elders to the Pakistani authorities in Kurram Agency, according to Foreign Office officials.

The release was made possible through talks between tribal jirgas on both sides of the border, sources said.

Following the crash, COAS Gen Raheel Sharif had called US commander General Nicolson and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, asking them to help in the recovery of the copter crew.