November issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

It was the sixth day after the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers, Wang Peng and Wang Ende. The morning dawned tense in Spinkai Raghzai, a former stronghold of tribal militants resisting the Pakistan army’s operations in South Waziristan. A group of journalists, including myself, had spent the night in the village waiting for Abdullah Mahsud, the 29-year-old, one legged, commander of the militants. Only Mahsud, who had ordered the kidnappings, had the power to save the lives of the Chinese hostages and their five kidnappers, and only he could bring the drama to a peaceful end.

In a last-ditch effort, the government had sent four of Abdullah Mahsud’s cousins, including his brother-in-law, to try to negotiate the release of the engineers. As many predicted, the mercurial commander dismissed their pleas and repeated his demands: safe passage to the kidnappers and the hostages. Negotiations, he declared, would start only once his men and the hostages had been brought to him, promising that the Chinese engineers would not be harmed in his custody.

Mahsud had earlier been summoned before local jirgas in Spinkai Raghzai and Barwand, which had repeated the government’s offer of safe passage to the five kidnappers, provided the militants would free the hostages. Mahsud had scorned the offer and reiterated his stance to the 21-member peace committee, comprising elders and Ulema of the Mahsud tribe, led by the pro-MMA MNA from South Waziristan, Maulana Merajuddin. So desperate was the government to seek freedom for the hostages at this stage that it was even willing to consider giving in to Mahsud, despite serious reservations about the safety of the Chinese hostages once they were shifted to an area controlled by the militants.

Mahsud’s body language and frenzied actions at this stage betrayed his emotional state. In violation of time-honoured local customs, he didn’t see off his cousins or even shake their hands when they departed without making a breakthrough. It was his way of refusing their repeated pleas for the release of the Chinese hostages. He even reprimanded a senior tribal journalist who tried to argue with him over his shifting position on the hostage crisis. His outburst convinced us that the agitated commander had made up his mind about the fate of the hostages.

On my request, Abdullah Mahsud agreed to let us talk to the kidnappers and the Chinese hostages on his wireless. In order to get a good signal, we had to climb a nearby hill overlooking the valley. The commander accompanied us uphill, exposing all of us to risk, and suggested that we interview him there. We drove in a convoy of vehicles on an unpaved road, kicking up dust and disturbance, and alarming the tribespeople in Spinkai Raghzai bazaar and those used to the calm of the lush-green Gurhikhel village in the process. The barren hill provided a spectacular view of the valley, including a paramilitary Frontier Corps checkpoint not far from where we were standing. At some distance was Chakmalai, the village of the Jalalkhel Mahsud sub-tribe, where the kidnappers and their prey had been stranded after their vehicle had broken down. Although we couldn’t see the mud-house near the dry water stream where the hostages’ drama was playing out, we could now talk to the kidnappers and the unfortunate Chinese engineers.

Using the code name, Khadim, Mahsud began talking to Agha Jan, the leader of the gang of kidnappers, from a wireless set held by one of his aides. Soon he was issuing orders for the kidnappers, whom he referred to as mujahideen, to firmly strap explosives not only to their own waists but also to those of the Chinese hostages as well, to recite their prayers and be ready to sacrifice their lives. “When I give the order, you should start moving out of the mud-hut with the hostages, and force your way toward our area. If soldiers or other parties approach you, tell them you will blow up yourselves and the hostages,” he ordered.

On our request, Abdullah Mahsud agreed to delay the operation and let us talk to the kidnappers and their hostages. I was to talk to them on the wireless. The reception was poor, necessitating us to climb up further. One of the hapless Chinese engineers, Wang Peng, was on the line, speaking in broken English. “Assalam-o-Alaikum!” were his first words to me, before he proceeded to plead for his life. The two brothers of policeman Asmatullah Gandapur, the guard accompanying the Chinese engineers, who had also been kidnapped, told us later that Peng had converted to Islam. His young wife was praying desperately for news of his release at the Sino Hydro Company’s camp office at Hathala on the Tank-Dera Ismail Khan. Like her, more than 100 engineers and technicians brought in to Pakistan by the company from China to build the huge Gomal Zam Dam project in South Waziristan and Tank had stopped work, and were waiting anxiously for the hostage crisis to be resolved.

Wang Peng, the younger of the two Chinese engineers, but senior in rank to Wang Ende, wanted us to convey to his country’s embassy and to the Pakistan government not to launch a military rescue operation, as both he and Ende would be at increased risk. His fears proved true in the subsequent rescue mission. Fifteen Pakistan Army commandoes gunned down the five kidnappers, and the unfortunate Wang Peng was hit in the stomach by bullets fired by sharpshooters, as he tried to duck behind one of the kidnappers. The bullets had allegedly pierced the kidnapper’s body before hitting him.

Wired to explosives strapped to his hands and back, Wang Peng was understandably nervous as he made desperate pleas for his life to be saved. Barely half an hour before he was killed, he had pleaded with us over the wireless to “Please help us, please save us.” As Wang Peng’s English was weak, and Wang Ende only spoke Chinese, I had secured permission from Abdullah Mahsud to allow them to record their messages for their company and embassy in their mother tongue. A host of reporters and cameramen from the domestic and international media recorded the event.

Next we spoke to Agha Jan, the leader of the kidnappers, in Pashto. His accent is common in Pashtun areas in Balochistan and in neighbouring southwestern Afghanistan, including Kandahar province. Pakistani authorities claimed he and another kidnapper spoke Pashto with a Kandahari accent and were, therefore, of Afghan origin. They also alleged that the remaining three kidnappers were foreigners, possibly Uzbeks. Abdullah Mahsud denied this and claimed all five kidnappers were Pakistanis, a statement supported by an independent probe and leaks from the kidnapped policeman, Asmatullah Gandapur, who had spent six days in the custody of the kidnappers before his lucky release an hour before the military rescue mission. The gang leader, Agha Jan, reportedly belonged to Qila Abdullah near the border town of Chaman in Balochistan; Ajab Khan, the son of Khwaja Mohammad, was an inhabitant of Loni village in Dera Ismail Khan’s Kulachi tehsil; Shamsuddin hailed from Mohalla Sheikhan in Kulachi town; Noor Rahman, the son of Surat Khan, was a Mahsud tribesman from the Machikhel branch living in Barwand, South Waziristan; and Sabir, the son of Noor Alam, was a member of Miani Murtaza tribe in Tank district.

Kidnapper Agha Jan was firm and defiant as he took orders from Mahsud, and told me that both he and his four colleagues were ready to lay down their lives on the instruction of their commander. He remained unmoved by my repeated assertions that the kidnapped Chinese were not representing their government and had only come to Pakistan to earn a livelihood, maintaining that he had been ordered to kidnap the two men and that was that. When it was pointed out to him that the Chinese engineers hailed from a friendly country, were our guests and were working on a project that would bring enormous economic benefit to parts of South Waziristan and Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts, Agha Jan stated that the men had been kidnapped to put pressure on the Pakistan government to accept the militants’ demands. “We obey our Amir’s (leader) orders. Our commander ordered us to kidnap the Chinese and we obeyed him. If he orders us to jump from this hill we would do that as well,” he stressed. Clearly, there was no use arguing with a man who would blindly follow his leader.

Later that day we talked to Agha Jan and Wang Peng once again, when the voice quality on the wireless had improved. At this point, the group of journalists managed to persuade Mahsud to give them time to talk to army commanders in Jandola and Peshawar, to ascertain their reaction to his ordering the kidnappers to break out of the siege at Chakmalai along with their Chinese hostages. Efforts to reach Corps Commander Peshawar Lt. General Safdar Hussain and Major Gen Niaz Khattak, General Officer Commanding, Kohat, in charge of the military operations in South Waziristan, didn’t bear fruit. Time was running out and everyone involved in the hostage drama was incredibly tense.

Although Mahsud appeared to be aware of world events, he didn’t concede to the pain that the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers would cause the Pakistani nation. He kept reiterating that the Chinese men had been kidnapped to hurt the government of President General Pervez Musharraf and force it to concede to the militants’ demands. “We have no enmity with the Chinese people, and I am sad that we had to kidnap the Chinese engineers,” he said. “But desperate people do desperate things and the only way we thought we could compel the Pakistan government to stop its military operations in South Waziristan was to kidnap engineers belonging to Pakistan’s best friend, China.”

In this approach, Abdullah Mahsud had been severely criticised by Haji Mohammad Omar, who succeeded the late Nek Mohammad as commander of the tribal militants operating in Wana and Shakai valleys inhabited by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe. “Abdullah Mahsud committed a blunder. He shouldn’t have kidnapped the Chinese engineers. And after the botched kidnapping attempt, he should have agreed to the government’s offer of safe passage for the five kidnappers in return for the release of the two Chinese hostages. I am still unable to understand why he so carelessly sacrificed five young and loyal militants who organised the kidnapping and obeyed his every order,” said Omar.

It was at this stage that we reminded Abdullah Mahsud of his promises: his announcement to set free and deliver the captured army soldier, Mohammad Shaban, to the journalists, and his offer to release the kidnapped cop, Asmatullah Gandapur, to the jirga of Mahsud tribal elders and Ulema. To his credit, he immediately agreed to fulfill both promises. The next minute, he was issuing orders to the kidnappers to release the policeman and instructed his men to hand over Sepoy Shaban to the media team as well. Both were lucky, as delay by even half an hour could have meant the difference between life and death. Gandapur, the policeman, walked free just before army sharpshooters began their assault on the kidnappers and Shaban, kidnapped a month ago and still wearing his military uniform, was delivered to us as we prepared to leave the now dangerous and fully exposed hillside. The bearded Shaban, from Vehari in Punjab, was hugged and greeted by joyous colleagues half an hour later in the old Jandola Fort. Abdullah Mahsud could have ordered his execution or refused to release him if he had known that all of his five kidnappers had been killed in the rescue mission by the army commandoes.

Tension had now reached boiling point. A vehicle drove past us taking militants in guerilla jackets toward Chakmalai, ostensibly to help the kidnappers to escape. Abdullah Mahsud, tears rolling down his cheeks, was giving final orders to the kidnappers to be ready for the supreme sacrifice. “If you are martyred, pray for me to Allah because martyrs’ prayers are never refused,” he requested Agha Jan, the kidnappers’ boss, on the wireless. Just then we heard firing in the distance, the shots ringing in the mountains. Abdullah Mahsud and his men made desperate attempts to establish contact with Agha Jan. But there was no answer from the other end. Agha Jan and the four kidnappers were dead, and the wounded Wang Peng was breathing his last despite the best efforts of army doctors who had accompanied the commandoes to save his life. “There is no answer. It is probably all over,” remarked Mahsud as he fiddled with his wireless set and ordered his driver to rush him back to their hideout.

That was the last anyone has heard of Mahsud. He is now the most wanted man in Pakistan with General Musharraf publicly declaring he would personally shoot Abdullah Mahsud dead if he ever came across him.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.