November 13, 2008 / 12:24 AM / 9 years ago

Canada reporter says swapped for Afghan prisoners

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian journalist kidnapped near Kabul last month said on Wednesday that she had been released in exchange for relatives of her chief abductor, who the Afghan authorities had put in jail after she was seized.

Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter Mellissa Fung was freed on Saturday after 28 days in captivity. She said most of the kidnappers had been young men and were clearly members of a criminal gang rather than the Taliban.

“I now understand that Afghan intelligence had sort of fingered the family of the ringleader of this gang and had arrested a whole bunch of them and it was a prisoner exchange,” she told the CBC in an hour-long interview.

“They agreed to release the family if the group would release me and that’s what ended up happening,” she said.

Fung, who was kept in a hole in the ground for most of her time in captivity, also said she had been stabbed in the shoulder during her abduction and that the kidnappers had told her, “We won’t kill you.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters on Monday that no “political prisoners” had been exchanged for Fung, a careful choice of words that could include the possibility of family members being used in a swap.

Harper also said no ransom had been paid by the government, the CBC or anyone else to free the 35-year-old reporter.

Ron Hoffman, Canada’s ambassador to Kabul, told CBC radio on Wednesday that Afghan authorities had temporarily detained a number of people “that were associated with the kidnappers and (this) played a role in the release” of Fung.

He added: “I wouldn’t agree it was a tactic to temporarily arrest innocent people.” He did not give more details.

Fung said that at the end of the ordeal her captors were visibly angry and told her she was being let go for no money.

Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous places in the world for reporters, has seen a spike this year in assassinations and kidnappings of foreigners.

Fung was snatched by two armed men on October 12 outside a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul.

“I hit one and then he stabbed me in the shoulder and the next thing I knew I was inside the car on the floor of the back seat ... one of the guys had his foot on my leg so I couldn’t move. I think that was one of the scariest moments,” she said.

“One thing they said is, ‘We’re not going to kill you’. They said it in English.”

Fung was taken by car and motorcycle to a town near Kabul and then made to walk up a hill until she reached the entrance to a small hole, where she spent much of the next month.

“I just thought ‘Nobody’s ever going to find me here ... I‘m in a hole in the middle of nowhere’,” she said. She survived on nothing but juice and biscuits for four weeks.

“Generally, they didn’t hit me, they didn’t beat me ... they wanted to make sure I was eating,” she said.

Fung said one of her abductors told her he was one of five brothers who operated a kidnapping business with their father, who was in Pakistan. She said the various members of the gang told her their ages ranged from 18 to 21.

One told her the gang had also seized two Europeans. Later he said they had been released after their ransoms were paid.

At one point Fung said she pretended to be sick to put pressure on her captors, and conceded that there had been “some very awful days.”

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Richard Valdmanis

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