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Journalist reveals how duo escaped Taliban

Two journalists held over seven months by the Taliban in Pakistan endured death threats before they escaped by tricking guards and dropping down a 20-foot wall with a rope.
Afghanistan NYT Reporter Abduction
Afghan journalist Tahir Ludin, who was held captive with New York Times reporter David Rohde, recalls the ordeal from his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. Rahim Faiez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two journalists held over seven months by the Taliban in Pakistan endured death threats before they escaped by tricking guards and dropping down a 20-foot wall with a rope, according to one of the former captives.

Afghan journalist Tahir Ludin provided the details in comments to the Associated Press and in an interview published Monday by The New York Times.

Ludin was held captive along with David Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Times, and their driver, Asadullah Mangal.

Ludin said their captors' demands kept changing during their seven-month ordeal.

Immediately after being abducted, the three were driven across Afghanistan with little water and in constant fear for their lives, Ludin said. The journalists and their driver were seized south of the capital Nov. 10 while en route to interview a Taliban leader.

"Around 100 meters (yards) after the town of Baraki Rajan district one vehicle stopped and there were armed men inside. They pointed their guns to us and said, 'Don't move, you are under arrest.' So we had no guns, we stopped. They put us in the back of their car," Ludin said. He said the kidnappers were the same people through whom he had arranged the interview.

Blindfolded and beaten
The 35-year-old journalist said he and Rohde were put in separate cars, and that he and their driver were blindfolded and beaten.

"They were beating me with the butt of their Kalashnikovs and punches," Ludin said. He said he tried to tell his captors to call the Taliban leader they had planned to meet, Abu Tuyeb, or Taliban spokesmen.

"They told me, 'We don't know Abu Tuyeb, we don't know (spokesman) Qari Yusuf, we don't know (spokesman) Zabiullah. Everyone is Zabiullah,'" Ludin recounted.

Rohde told Ludin he had not been beaten, and Ludin said he had not seen any evidence Rohde was harmed.

Ludin, who escaped with Rohde last week, spoke to The Associated Press in two brief phone conversations and during a short visit to a house where he was staying in Kabul. Ludin said he was worried that he was still in danger, and The New York Times was making arrangements to ensure his safety.

Rohde hired Ludin, who works mostly for the Times of London, to arrange the interview last November and to translate.

$30 million sought at first
Ludin said their Taliban captors sometimes accused the men of being spies, but at other times appeared to have purely financial motives for the kidnapping, threatening to kill them if they did not procure large sums of money.

At first they demanded $30 million, then said they wanted to exchange the men for Taliban prisoners being held by the Afghan government. The demands would change week by week, Ludin said.

They repeatedly threatened Ludin's life and the lives of his family, the reporter said, adding the threats made him angry enough that he would curse at them in return.

"Sometimes they would show us the way that they would kill us, like showing us a CD of chopping off people's heads," he said.

Ludin said the hostages were relatively well treated once they were driven into Pakistan's tribal areas. They were given plenty to eat and drink, and often able to take hot showers, even though they were repeatedly shuffled from house to house.

"We would always have mineral water," said Ludin, adding that each of the three hostages were allowed to make individual requests for meals.

"You'd be surprised. Everything was according to request. Like you were staying in a hotel," Ludin said. At one point, Rohde was sick and their captors allowed him to see a doctor, Ludin said.

Ludin appeared healthy aside from a bandaged finger and toe, having even gained weight during his captivity. But he also seemed confused about people and his surroundings.

It took the reporter a few minutes of phone conversation to recall knowing an AP reporter, even though the reporter introduced himself by name at the beginning of the call.

"I knew you were one of my friends, but I couldn't remember who you were," Ludin said.

Escape plan detailed
Ludin said the past two to three months seemed so "hopeless" that he considered committing suicide with a knife.

Ludin said the driver appeared to be overwhelmed by fear of their captors and had not participated in the planning or the escape.

The journalists were abducted Nov. 10 south of the Afghan capital of Kabul. They escaped Friday.

They plotted to keep their captors awake as late as possible to ensure they would eventually sleep soundly. Ludin challenged them to a board game.

At 1 a.m., Rohde woke Ludin, who recited several verses of the Quran and followed him out of the room. They made their way to the second floor.

Ludin got to the top of a 5-foot-high wall. When he looked down, he was greeted by a 20-foot drop.

Rohde handed Ludin a rope that he had found two weeks earlier and had hidden from the guards. They fastened the rope to the wall, and Ludin lowered himself along the rope.

He crashed to the ground, suffering a sprained right foot, cuts and bruises. Rohde then lowered himself along the wall and jumped without injury.

Ludin said they waited to make their escape attempt on a night when the city had electrical power. An old, noisy air conditioner masked other sounds.

Dogs barked as they escaped
As the two men walked away, dogs barked at them from nearby compounds and strays rushed at them. To their surprise, no Taliban members emerged from nearby houses.

After 15 minutes, Ludin said, they arrived at a Pakistani militia post. In the darkness, a half-dozen guards who suspected they were suicide bombers aimed rifles at them and shouted for them to raise their hands.

"They said, 'If you move, we are going to shoot you,'" he said.

Ludin said he was shivering in the darkness, and it took 15 minutes of anxious conversation to convince the guards that they had been kidnapped.

They were eventually allowed into the compound, ordered to take off their shirts, searched, blindfolded and taken to the base's headquarters. After Pakistani officials confirmed their identities, they were treated well.

Later that day, they were transferred to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and to an American military base outside Kabul.

Rohde confirmed the accuracy of Ludin's account but declined to comment further.

Rohde was on leave from The New York Times when the three men were seized and was working on a book about the history of American involvement in Afghanistan. Rohde was reunited with his family on Sunday, the newspaper said.

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