TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The freeing of a kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple and their three children in Pakistan is a positive sign and a recognition of how seriously Islamabad takes the protection of American citizens, a senior U.S. military official said on Thursday.
“We are very appreciative for the efforts of the Pakistani military in helping effect the securing of our American hostages that have been held there, and a Canadian citizen, for quite some time,” said General Joseph Votel. As head of U.S. Central Command, Votel oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, including Afghanistan.
“It is a positive sign that they (recognised) the importance, they (recognised) the opportunity, they acted quickly and very responsibly to get control of these persons and begin to effect their return,” Votel told reporters. He added that he had spoken with Pakistan’s chief of Army Staff on Wednesday.
American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, along with their children born in captivity, were freed nearly five years after the couple was abducted in neighbouring Afghanistan by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which the United States has long accused Pakistan of failing to fight.
In recent days, senior U.S. officials have been more pointed about Islamabad’s alleged ties to militant groups, who are battling against U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the 16-year-old war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
When asked what more Pakistan should do to fight militancy, Votel said he would keep conversations with his Pakistani counterparts private, but added that the freeing of the hostages was an example of the Pakistanis paying attention to something important to the United States.
Votel said peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan were possible to bring an end to the war.
“Our focus is to put military pressure on the Taliban to make that a viable option for them, that they need to come to the table,” he said.
Representatives of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States will meet in Oman next week to discuss reviving peace talks with Afghan Taliban militants.
It was not clear if Afghan Taliban representatives would join the talks. Taliban sources said they had not yet received an invitation and planned to skip Monday’s discussions in Muscat, casting doubt on efforts to revive long-stalled negotiations.
The Taliban, ousted in a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, has been gaining territory in recent years as it wages an insurgency to try to topple Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and re-establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime.
Votel also said he was optimistic about the progress being made in Afghanistan and U.S. forces were already able to embed with their Afghan counterparts at a lower level than before, bringing them closer to the front lines.
Officials have told Reuters that the United States will send 3,500 additional troops to Afghanistan, a boost that would the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 14,500.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry