Two Indian abducted by the Taliban returned to Delhi on Tuesday, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, and negotiations were on for one more Indian, the last of the group kidnapped in 2018 , sources told The Hindu .
“We thank the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for their constant and unwavering support in securing the release of the Indians,” said the MEA spokesperson, announcing the return of the two men, whom it didn’t name and who had been released from captivity on July 31.
According to the sources, their release was helped by the Eid ceasefire between Afghan forces and the Taliban, which included prisoner exchanges. A meeting of “elders” or a ‘Loya Jirga’ called by President Ashraf Ghani on August 7 to advise him on the fate of about 400 Taliban convicted of “heinous crimes” could also prove crucial in securing the release of the last hostage, the sources said.
The hostages, Prasadi Mahto and Hulas Mahto from Jharkhand and Mantu Singh from Bihar, were part of a group of seven employees of Indian engineering company KEC International (owned by the RP Goenka group) that was developing a power project in Afghanistan’s northern Baglan province.
The seven men and their Afghan driver were abducted by a Taliban group in May 2018. It demanded ransom in payment as well as the release of senior Taliban militants. After negotiations, one of the hostages was released in March 2019, while three others were released in a swap for 11 Taliban militants held by the U.S. forces at the Bagram prison in October 2019.
Officials would not confirm the number of prisoners now being discussed for release in exchange of the remaining hostages, but it is understood that nine Taliban prisoners, including some releases facilitated by the U.S., have been freed, while two others, accused of more serious crimes, awaited being freed by the government.
The family members of the three hostages told The Hindu they have not heard of any movement on the release of their loved ones, but are in touch with their State governments as well as KEC officials for updates. Prasadi Mahto and Hulas Mahto belong to two villages in the Bagodar block of Giridih district. Both are sole breadwinners for their families and have three children each. The family members of all four labourers from Jharkhand had also got ₹1 lakh as compensation from the previous government led by chief minister Raghuvar Das in 2019. Mantu Singh, belonging to Bihar’s Madhepura district, has two children and his wife said she continues to receive his salary from his employers. Of the four hostages who were released last year, two belonged to Jharkhand and two to Kerala.
The talks for the last Indian hostage reportedly hit a roadblock last week after President Ghani halted the release of the last 400 Taliban prisoners, all of whom are accused of serious crimes, saying the Afghan Constitution would not permit it. Thus far, under the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghanistan government agreement signed in February 2020, Kabul has released 4,914 prisoners while the Taliban has released nearly 1,000 hostages in its custody.
After the Taliban protested, even threatening resumption of violence , President Ghani said he would convene a meeting of Loya Jirga to decide on the matter, which is now expected on Friday. Both sides are expected to announce an intra-Afghan dialogue, possibly as early as next week, if the deal goes through, which would be a crucial next step in the Afghanistan reconciliation process.
According to the sources aware of the negotiations, the hostages had been moved to Taliban strongholds in the South after being kidnapped in the North. The kidnapping ran counter to the Taliban’s earlier assurances that they wouldn’t target Indians who were involved in development projects, and the Baglan province governor had originally suggested the abduction was a case of mistaken identity.
(With inputs from Amarnath Tewary in Patna)