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.


New Zealand volcano vents steam, death toll now at 16

Updated 15 min 55 sec ago

New Zealand volcano vents steam, death toll now at 16

  • Volcanic tremors on White Island were intensifying to a level not seen since an eruption in 2016

WHAKATANE: As a New Zealand island volcano vented more steam and mud, authorities delayed plans to recover the bodies of victims from a deadly eruption two days ago and announced Thursday that the death toll rose after two people who had been hospitalized died.
Volcanic tremors on White Island were intensifying to a level not seen since an eruption in 2016, the GeoNet seismic monitoring agency said, calculating a 40% to 60% chance of another eruption within the next 24 hours.
The deaths of the two came after authorities said they had confirmed that six people died and and that the bodies of eight other people are believed to remain on the ash covered island. Many of those who survived the initial volcanic blast suffered horrific burns. Another 28 people remain hospitalized, including 23 in critical condition
Meanwhile, Australia was sending a military plane to bring some of the Australians injured in the eruption to Australia for specialist medical care. Authorities expected to transport 10 injured patients to New South Wales and Victoria states, beginning Thursday.
Monday’s eruption sent a tower of steam and ash an estimated 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) into the air. Many of the injured suffered severe burns, were in critical condition and were being treated at hospital burn units around New Zealand.
GeoNet said in an early evening update that shallow magma within the volcano appeared to be driving the increased activity. It also said there was a low risk to the mainland. The volcano is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) off New Zealand’s main North Island.
Police believe 47 visitors were on the island at the time of the eruption, 24 of them Australian, nine Americans, five New Zealanders and others from Germany, Britain, China and Malaysia. Many were passengers aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
Survivors ran into the sea to escape the scalding steam and ash and emerged covered in burns, said those who first helped them. Geoff Hopkins watched the eruption from a boat after visiting the island and told the New Zealand Herald the eruption quickly turned menacing.
He told the paper that injured people transported on their boat were horrifically burned on their exposed skin and even under their clothes.
The first confirmed death was of a local man, Hayden Marshall-Inman, a guide who had shown tourists around the island. Former Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne said Marshall-Inman was a keen fisherman and well-liked.
In the town touted as the gateway to White Island, the volcano has an almost mystical significance, its regular puffing a feature of the landscape. Whether the island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, will ever host tourists again remains uncertain.
Many people were questioning why tourists were allowed to visit the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano’s alert level last month.
The island had been mined for sulfur until a 1914 accident in which at least 10 people were killed, and a landslide destroyed the miners’ village and the mine itself. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953.
Daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit every year.