updated 2/15/2009 3:14:14 AM ET 2009-02-15T08:14:14

Pakistani Taliban militants have freed a Chinese engineer held captive for nearly six months, officials said Sunday, as fears rose for the safety of an abducted American threatened with imminent death by his kidnappers.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Long Xiaowei's release, including whether a ransom was paid or militants were freed in exchange, but the news that he was safe was a rare bright spot in a month of heightened security concerns for foreigners in Pakistan.

Long's release came days before a visit to China by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Earlier this month, a Polish geologist held by Taliban fighters was apparently beheaded on a video obtained by news media and authorities and believed by the Polish government to be authentic. On Friday, the kidnappers of American U.N. official John Solecki threatened to kill him within 72 hours and issued a 20-second video of a blindfolded Solecki saying he was "sick and in trouble."

The abductions have underscored the overall deteriorating security conditions in Pakistan, a critical U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, as it battles a Taliban insurgency in its northwest regions bordering Afghanistan. On Saturday, a U.S. missile strike on a compound in the area where dozens of Taliban militants had gathered killed 27 people, intelligence officials said.

Major ally of Pakistan
China also is a major ally and longtime financial supporter of Pakistan, and the Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing attached high importance to the case of the kidnapped engineer.

Long was let go Saturday and taken to the Chinese embassy Sunday morning, said Yao Jing, deputy head of China's mission in Islamabad. The engineer appeared in good condition and expected to go back to China after a medical checkup, China's Foreign Ministry said.

Long and his colleague, engineer Zhang Guo, were kidnapped in August in the Dir region of northwest Pakistan. They both escaped in mid-October, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency. Long injured his ankle and was recaptured, while Zhang got away.

The Chinese ministry added that the engineer returned to the embassy under the escort of Pakistani military and police, but it did not give any details of how he came into Pakistani custody. Yao also said he did not know if a deal with struck with the militants.

However, Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley, claimed that the militants freed the Chinese captive after the government agreed to impose Islamic law in their region.

Swat, a former tourist haven, is believed to be largely under militant control despite a lengthy army offensive.

"That was our only demand," Khan told The Associated Press via telephone. "Once Islamic law is imposed there will be no problems in Swat. The Taliban will lay down their arms."

Pakistani government officials could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday morning.

Demanding women's release?
Gunmen seized Solecki on Feb. 2 in Quetta, a southwestern city near the Afghan border. The kidnappers have since identified themselves as the previously unknown Baluchistan Liberation United Front, indicating a link to separatists rather than to Islamists.

A U.N. statement said it was aware of the kidnappers' demand for the release of 141 women allegedly held in Pakistan and was seeking "urgent contact to discuss ways of securing (Solecki's) release."

The concerns are especially high following the apparent slaying of the Polish geologist, Piotr Stanczak. If confirmed, that slaying would be the first killing of a Western hostage in Pakistan since American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded in 2002.

Poland has asked the U.S. for help tracking down the Taliban militants suspected to have had Stanczak, whose body has not been recovered. Warsaw also has plans to issue an international warrant for their arrest.

The Pakistani president said in a television interview that the Taliban had expanded their presence to a "huge amount" of Pakistan and were eyeing a takeover of the state. Zardari sought to counter the view of many Pakistanis that the country is fighting Islamist militants, who have enjoyed state support in the past, only at Washington's behest.

"We're fighting for the survival of Pakistan. We're not fighting for the survival of anybody else," Zardari said, according to a transcript of the interview, which CBS television said it would air Sunday.

More on Taliban   |  John Solecki

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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