Taliban Free 2 Westerners Working for U.N., Days After Quiet Detention

ISTANBUL — The Taliban on Friday released two Western citizens and two Afghan colleagues who had been working for the United Nations in Afghanistan, hours after the U.N. had announced that they had been held by the Taliban for several days in Afghanistan.

The team members, including Andrew North, a British citizen and former BBC reporter, were on assignment with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were detained in Kabul in recent days. “We are doing our utmost to resolve the situation,” the U.N.’s initial statement said.

The statement was quickly picked up by international media, and the Taliban did not initially respond to requests for comment. But hours later, the government’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that the Westerners had been released, without mentioning the two Afghans.

“Those foreigners who were said to be related to an international entity were arrested because they did not have the correct identification and permits,” he said. “They are in good health, and after their identities were verified they were released.”

People close to Mr. North confirmed that they had been in touch with him after his release. Late in the evening Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner’s office in Geneva confirmed the release of both Westerners and their Afghan colleagues.

More broadly, a growing body of accusations that the Taliban have been detaining and abusing Afghan civil society figures and protesters — including women’s rights campaigners, journalists and former members of the security forces — has cast a long shadow over its efforts to have international sanctions lifted.

The U.N. has documented at least 100 extrajudicial killings of former security force members since the Taliban seized power in August. But human rights groups say the real number is much larger, and they say there has been an increasing number of abusive detentions and disappearances since then as well.

The Taliban have publicly denied any involvement in disappearances and killings, and say that they are abiding by a publicly announced pardon for former Afghan officials and security force members.

Among the accusations is that at least two women who had campaigned for improved rights, and three others close to them, were taken at gunpoint from their homes on Jan. 19, and have not been heard from since. The two activists have been identified as Tamana Zaryab Paryani and Parwana Ebrahim Khelby.

A video posted on social media showed Ms. Paryani screaming for help and shouting that the Taliban were pounding on her door.

On Friday, a representative for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London said that at least six British citizens in total were being held by the authorities in Afghanistan, and said that the United Nations was handling Mr. North’s case.

“We are providing support to the families of a number of British men who have been detained in Afghanistan,” the statement said. “U.K. officials have raised their detention with the Taliban at every opportunity, including when a delegation traveled to Kabul yesterday.”

The news of the U.N. team’s detention was first posted by the former vice president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh Friday, who said the Taliban was holding nine citizens of Western countries, among them Mr. North and Peter Jouvenal, a former journalist and businessman who ran a guesthouse, the Gandamack Lodge, in Kabul for many years. The two were detained in unrelated incidents.

Mr. Jouvenal, a dual British-German citizen, is among seven Western nationals, including one American and six British citizens, who were detained on various occasions at the end of last year. The Taliban has not publicly confirmed their detention or announced any charges against them, but British officials were given access to some of those being held this week.

Friends of Mr. Jouvenal issued a statement on Friday expressing deep concern for his safety. Mr. Jouvenal, who is a Muslim and is married to an Afghan, has been held in a jail of the Taliban’s intelligence arm in Kabul since being detained early December, his friends say. According to one of his friends, David Loyn, a former BBC reporter, he was visited by a British official last week.

“He is being held without charge, and with no freedom to contact his family or lawyers,” the statement said.

“Peter’s family and friends believe that he may have been detained in error, as he was in Afghanistan to discuss investments in Afghanistan’s mining industry as well as conducting family business. Before his arrest he was working openly and had frequent meetings with senior Taliban officials.”

President Biden also raised the case of Mark R. Frerichs, a United States Navy veteran who was working as a contractor in Afghanistan when he was kidnapped by the Haqqani Network of the Taliban two years ago.

“He has done nothing wrong,” Mr. Biden said in a statement last month on the anniversary of his kidnapping. “And yet, for two years the Taliban has held him captive.”

The president warned the Taliban not to try to use Mr. Frerichs as a bargaining chip in their negotiations for recognition or the lifting of sanctions with the United States.

Through many years of the war, the Haqqani Network amassed a long record of kidnapping for ransom or for political leverage.

The leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, served as the deputy leader of the Taliban during its insurgency against American forces and is now the acting Interior Minister in the Taliban government.

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