Taliban denies hostage death, blames US for prisoner exchange failure

This screengrab taken from a YouTube video shows Kevin King, left, an American national, and Tim Weeks, Australian national who were kidnapped by the Taliban in Kabul, 2016. (Photo courtesy: YouTube/Screengrab)
Updated 17 November 2019

Taliban denies hostage death, blames US for prisoner exchange failure

  • Reports of Professor Kevin King’s death began circulating on social media days after a failed prisoner swap deal
  • The US said it supports the Afghan government in its reassessment of conditions for the prisoner exchange

ISLAMABAD: Afghan Taliban on Sunday dismissed reports circulating on social media that one of two abducted foreign professors in their custody, from the Kabul-based American University of Afghanistan, had died due to poor health.
The Taliban quashed reports about the death of American Kevin King, days after a much-publicized prisoners’ swap deal between the Taliban and Afghan government failed to occur.
“These reports (of his death) are incorrect,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, told Arab News via Whatsapp.
Another Taliban spokesperson in Qatar told Arab News that both the professors were alive and that reports of their death were ‘false rumors.’
“The hostages are alive. Reports about the death are false rumors... their assertions are a figment of the imagination,” he said. 
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani had said on Tuesday that his government would release a leader of the Taliban’s Haqqani militant faction and two other commanders in exchange for the two university professors, American King and Australian Timothy Weeks, who have been in Taliban captivity since 2016.
But the prisoner swap, set for Wednesday, was postponed without elaboration and has led to a blame-game between all parties.
The Taliban have blamed the US for the failure of the prisoner exchange, while Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the Taliban were to blame for “not honoring” their promise to free the professors. 
There were reports that Taliban officials had been freed and flown to Qatar for the exchange, but had to be brought back and locked up in Bagram prison north of Kabul. 
However, a Taliban spokesperson in Qatar told Arab News that the Taliban prisoners were never brought to Qatar.
A Taliban spokesperson added that King and Weeks had been shifted to a new safe place because the group’s leaders suspected the Americans had “traced the university professors and were preparing to launch a rescue operation, which would be a deviation from the prisoner exchange deal.”
On Sunday, US ambassador to Kabul, John Bass, said on Twitter that the US endorsed the Afghan government’s decision to “reassess” conditions before the prisoner swap.
“We supported President Ghani’s announcement to release three Taliban prisoners to promote peace – and the decision to reassess their pending transfer following the attacks in Logar and Kabul on November 12 and 13,” Bass tweeted.
The Taliban released a video of both professors more than two years ago in June 2017, in which the men called on the Trump administration to enter into a prisoner exchange deal with the militants. They have not been seen since.


US sends carriers to South China Sea during Chinese drills

Updated 9 min 34 sec ago

US sends carriers to South China Sea during Chinese drills

  • China and the United States have accused each other of stoking tension in the strategic waterway
  • US carriers have long carried out exercises in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea

Two US aircraft carriers were conducting exercises in the disputed South China Sea on Saturday, the US navy said, as China also carried out military drills that have been criticized by the Pentagon and neighboring states.
China and the United States have accused each other of stoking tension in the strategic waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.
The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan were carrying out operations and exercises in the South China Sea “to support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the navy said in a statement.
It did not say exactly where the exercises were being conducted in the South China Sea, which extends for some 1,500 kilometers and 90 percent of which is claimed by China despite the protests of its neighbors.
“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the exercises.
Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the Ronald Reagan, said the exercises were not a response to those being conducted by China, which the Pentagon criticized this week as “counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability.”
China dismissed the US criticism of its drills on Friday and suggested the United States was to blame for increasing tensions.
US carriers have long carried out exercises in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, according to the US navy. At one point recently, the United States had three carriers in the region.
China announced last week it had scheduled five days of drills starting July 1 near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.
Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticized the planned Chinese drills, warning they could create tension in the region and impact Beijing’s relationship with its neighbors.
The United States accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year.
The US statement said the naval exercises gave commanders the flexibility and capabilities “that only the US Navy can command.”