Swiss hostages escape Pakistani Taliban: Swiss FM

Emmanuel Giroud
1 / 3

Olivier David Och, 31, and Daniela Widmer, 28, had been held captive for over eight months

Swiss couple Olivier David Och and Daniela Widmer arrive at the Qasim base in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 15. The Swiss couple held captive by the Pakistani Taliban for over eight months were flown back to the capital on Thursday, smiling and waving to the cameras and apparently in good health

A Swiss couple escaped after being held captive by the Pakistani Taliban for more than eight months, Switzerland's foreign minister said on Thursday.

Didier Burkhalter said no ransom was paid for policeman Olivier David Och, 31, and Daniela Widmer, 28, who were flown to the Pakistan capital Islamabad, smiling and waving to the cameras and apparently in good health.

The couple were abducted at gunpoint on July 1 in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, apparently on holiday.

Pakistani officials said they were found at a checkpost in the tribal belt, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold on the Afghan border but the nature of what happened was clouded in mystery.

They were seen by journalists for the first time at the Qasim airbase in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani army that lies adjacent to Islamabad, where they smiled and waved but were not permitted to speak.

Widmer stepped out of a military helicopter wearing a baggy pink shirt in traditional Pakistani style, a red scarf wrapped loosely over her shoulders and her blonde hair swept into a bun.

She was followed shortly by Och, who was sporting a bushy beard and wearing beige shalwar khamis and, despite the relatively warm spring day, a white hat.

Both stepped into a minibus and witnesses later told AFP they were driven away from the airbase with embassy officials.

The military said the couple were flown from the tribal area to the main northwestern city of Peshawar after being found after daybreak.

"They are safe and sound," army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP. "They told us that they escaped and then they reported to our checkpost. That's what they told intelligence agencies currently debriefing them."

Speaking at a press conference in Bern, Burkhalter praised Och, a policeman from Bern, and Widmer, saying they had escaped and shown "great courage".

The foreign minister said "no ransom was paid" for the couple as Switzerland does not pay to free hostages.

"The Swiss ambassador to Pakistan is in direct contact with them and was satisfied they were not injured and that their health, given the circumstances, is good," the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement.

The couple were in a safe place in Pakistan and their return to Switzerland was planned as soon as possible, it said.

Five foreigners remain kidnapped in Pakistan: an American, a Briton, a German, an Italian and a Kenyan. All of them are aid and development workers.

The Pakistani Taliban had claimed the Swiss abduction, demanding that they be exchanged for Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in 2010 in New York for the attempted murder of US government agents in Afghanistan.

But the details surrounding the couple's recovery were unclear and senior Taliban commanders could not be reached.

Pakistani officials said the Taliban released the couple in Spilga village in North Waziristan, the most notorious Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt that borders Afghanistan.

But they were not able to say whether any ransom had been paid or demands from the Taliban had been accepted.

"They were found near a checkpost on the main road early in the morning," one Pakistani official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In October, a video emerged of the couple -- apparently in relatively good health -- flanked by four masked gunmen pointing rifles at their heads.

Wali-ur Rehman, deputy head of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan faction that is linked to Al-Qaeda, had claimed the kidnapping, telling AFP in July that they were in "a very safe place" and that they were "completely in good health".

Siddiqui, dubbed "Lady Qaeda" by US tabloids, was sentenced to 86 years in prison after being found guilty of grabbing a rifle at an Afghan police station where she was being interrogated and opening fire on servicemen and FBI agents.

According to visas stamped in their passports, the Swiss couple arrived in Pakistan from India on June 28.

The pair entered Baluchistan from Punjab province and may have been heading for Quetta, possibly en route to Iran, officials in Islamabad have said.

Their blue Volkswagen van was found abandoned in Loralai district, around 170 kilometres (100 miles) east of the Baluchistan capital Quetta.

Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, attracts few tourists due to separatist violence and Taliban activity.

Switzerland has advised against non-essential travel to Pakistan since 2008, citing risks including the threat of kidnapping.