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Swiss hostages 'safe and sound' in Pakistan

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Swiss hostages 'safe and sound' in Pakistan
08:46 CET+01:00

A Swiss couple held captive by the Pakistani Taliban for over eight months were flown back to the capital on Thursday, smiling and waving to the cameras and apparently in good health.

Olivier David Och, 31, and Daniela Widmer, 28, were abducted at gunpoint on July 1st in the south-western province of Baluchistan, apparently on holiday.

Pakistani officials said they were found at a checkpost in the tribal belt, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold on the Afghan border, but the nature of their release was clouded in mystery and there were claims that they escaped.

They were seen by journalists for the first time at the Qasim airbase in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani army that lies adjacent to the capital Islamabad, where they smiled and waved but were not permitted to speak.

Widmer stepped out of a military helicopter wearing a baggy pink shirt in traditional Pakistani style, a red scarf wrapped loosely over her shoulders and her blonde hair swept into a bun.

She was followed shortly by Och, who was sporting a bushy beard and wearing beige shalwar khamis and, despite the relatively warm spring day, a white hat.

Both stepped into a minibus and witnesses later told AFP they were driven away from the airbase with embassy officials.

Earlier, the military said the couple were flown from the tribal area to the main north-western city of Peshawar after being found after daybreak.

"They are safe and sound," army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP. "They told us that they escaped and then they reported to our checkpost. That's what they told intelligence agencies currently debriefing them."

The Pakistani Taliban claimed the abduction in July, demanding that they be exchanged for Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in 2010 in New York for the attempted murder of US government agents in Afghanistan.

But the details surrounding the couple's recovery were unclear.

The Swiss embassy refused to comment when contacted by AFP and senior Taliban commanders could not be reached.

Pakistani officials said the Taliban released the couple in Spilga village in North Waziristan, the most notorious Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt that borders Afghanistan.

But they were not able to say whether any ransom had been paid or demands from the Taliban had been accepted.

"They were found near a checkpost on the main road early in the morning," one Pakistani official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In October, a video emerged of the couple -- apparently in relatively good health -- flanked by four masked gunmen pointing rifles at their heads.

Wali-ur Rehman, deputy head of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan faction that is linked to Al-Qaeda, had claimed the kidnapping, telling AFP in July that they were in "a very safe place" and that the were "completely in good health".

Siddiqui, dubbed "Lady Qaeda" by US tabloids, was sentenced to 86 years in prison after being found guilty of grabbing a rifle at an Afghan police station where she was being interrogated and opening fire on servicemen and FBI agents.

According to visas stamped in their passports, the Swiss couple arrived in Pakistan from India on June 28th.

The pair entered Baluchistan from Punjab province and may have been heading for Quetta, possibly en route to Iran, officials in Islamabad have said.

Their blue Volkswagen van was found abandoned in Loralai district, around 170 kilometres (100 miles) east of the Baluchistan capital Quetta.

Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, attracts few tourists due to separatist violence and Taliban activity.

Switzerland has advised against non-essential travel to Pakistan since 2008, citing risks including the threat of kidnapping.

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