KABUL — Six Afghan journalists, all identified as radio news reporters, were kidnapped by Taliban insurgents Friday while traveling to a media conference in the eastern province of Paktia, according to provincial officials and a Taliban spokesman.
But after a week of deadly attacks by the Taliban, including suicide bombings aimed at high-profile targets in the capital and ground attacks in four provinces, the chief Taliban spokesman said Saturday that the seizure of the journalists had been a “mistake” and that they would soon be released.
No direct contact has been reported with the missing reporters, and there has been no independent confirmation that they are alive and unharmed.
Hamid Kohestani, the news manager of Radio Killid Group, said Saturday night he did not know whether the journalists were still in Taliban custody. He said the station in Kabul had not been able to reach its reporter, Khairuddin, on his cellphone.
“We demand the release of our colleagues,” he said.
The insurgent spokesman, Zabiullah Muhajid, said in an online statement that “our mujahideen have mistakenly kidnapped” the reporters and that as soon as cellphone contact was made with local insurgent commanders, they would be released. Abdullah Hasrat, a spokesman for Paktia’s governor, said officials were “trying to negotiate their release.”
The journalists were described by Afghan media outlets as reporters from four Afghan news stations that broadcast in the Dari and Pashto languages. They were reportedly driving to attend a media workshop when they were abducted in Zurmat, a district of Paktia controlled by the Taliban.
In addition to Khairuddin, who goes by one name, the abductees were identified by ToloNews TV and other media as Abdul Rauf Zaheen from Pashtun Ghag radio, Jamaluddin Ilham from Radio Melma and three staff members of Radio Yaran: Tariq Shah Zaki, Abdul Wahid Wairan and Asadullah Samim.
Initial concerns about the group’s safety intensified following the news that Abdul Samad Amiri, a government human rights advocate traveling from Kabul to the western Ghowr province on Wednesday, had been abducted and shot dead by local Taliban fighters in Wardak province, a Taliban stronghold. His death sparked an outcry among Afghan and international rights groups.
The Paktia incident followed a spate of recent suicide bombings in Kabul and elsewhere that left scores of people dead and many more injured. All were claimed by the Taliban, which has ratcheted up its campaign of violence as U.S. officials seek to finalize a controversial peace deal with Taliban negotiators in Qatar.
Last year, Afghanistan was the deadliest country for journalists, with at least 13 killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. Another press monitoring group said a total of 16 had died. Most of the casualties were TV reporters and camera crews covering bombings and other violence.
Thursday marked the first anniversary of the deaths of two ToloNews staff members in Kabul, reporter Samim Faramarz and cameraman Ramiz Ahmadi, who were killed in a double-suicide bombing outside a gym. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. This week, murals and shrines were created in the city to commemorate them.
So far this year, one Afghan journalist has been killed by insurgents. On Jan. 5, Javid Noori, a radio host and regional government employee, was shot dead by Taliban fighters who stopped and searched a bus at a roadblock in the western province of Farah. He was separated from the other passengers and shot. The Taliban later said it had executed “an enemy officer.” In June, the Taliban issued a threat to Afghan news outlets, saying they would be attacked unless they stopped broadcasting government “propaganda” against the insurgents within a week.
Taliban officials rarely express regret or error after attacks that harm civilians, although they often give them military rationales. On Monday, when a truck bomb devastated a Kabul compound for foreign civilians and contractors, 16 Afghans and a Romanian diplomat were killed. The Taliban said its target was foreign “occupying forces.”
Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.