KABUL/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - The son of a former Pakistani prime minister who was rescued by Afghan and U.S. forces from al Qaeda captors in Afghanistan arrived home to a rapturous welcome in Pakistan on Wednesday, three years after being kidnapped from his home town.
Ali Haider Gilani was rescued on Monday by a joint force of Afghan and U.S. commandos who attacked a house held by al Qaeda militants in Paktika province, just across the border from Pakistan.
Before his departure from Afghanistan, Gilani, with long hair and a gray-streaked beard, thanked his rescuers.
Looking tired but otherwise healthy, the son of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said pressure from Pakistani forces fighting militants in lawless frontier lands had forced his captors to take him over the border into Afghanistan.
“I really appreciate the Afghan government’s efforts and the Afghan forces’ efforts for someone, these sacrifices, for someone from another country,” he told reporters at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence where he was handed over to Pakistani diplomats.
“That shows the efforts of the Afghan government to bringing peace in the region,” he said.
“I would also like to thank U.S. forces which, at the critical moments of my release provided me with shelter, food and medical care,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to being reunited with my family and just getting back to normal life.”
The rescue offered a rare moment of warmth and respite in long-running tensions between Kabul and Islamabad, which many in Afghanistan blame for fostering and sheltering Taliban leaders on their soil.
Pakistan denies it helps the insurgents and says it is itself the target of militants from Afghanistan.
Gilani was flown home on a chartered aircraft sent from Pakistan and was later showered with rose petals as he got out of a vehicle outside the family home in the city of Lahore.
He waved to the crowd and was mobbed by well-wishers and journalists.
Gilani was abducted on May 9, 2013, outside an office of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in his home town of Multan, two days before an election.
His rescue occurred partly by chance, as Afghan and U.S. special forces raided the suspected al Qaeda compound.
The force had an “inkling” a hostage was being held there but was not aware it was Gilani, said Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the NATO-led force.
He said four al Qaeda fighters were killed in the raid. Gilani was with his captors but was identified as a hostage after he did not try to resist.
Gilani’s father, a veteran PPP politician, was prime minister from 2008 to 2012.
Ali Haider’s was not the only high-profile abduction in Pakistan in recent years.
The son of a provincial governor assassinated for questioning blasphemy laws was kidnapped in 2011. Shahbaz Taseer was recovered in the Pakistani city of Quetta in March.
Additional reporting by Kay Johnson and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in ISLAMABAD; Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel