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Canadian held hostage in Afghanistan freed after five years

Facebook photo of Colin Rutherford, 26, Toronto resident.

A Toronto man has been freed more than five years after he was kidnapped in Afghanistan, where he said he had gone as a tourist.

While jet fighters flew overhead, Colin Rutherford was picked up by a helicopter that landed in a remote district of Ghazni province, about 200 kilometres southeast of Kabul, The Associated Press reported.

The operation took place at 11 a.m. Monday, in Giro district, local police chief Gen. Aminullah Amarkhil told AP.

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The release came months after the U.S. Senate heard testimony that the Pentagon had tried at one point to swing a deal to trade a jailed Afghan warlord in return for seven foreign captives, including Mr. Rutherford and another Canadian, Josh Boyle.

Mr. Boyle, his wife and their child born in captivity are believed to still be in the hands of captors in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

News of Mr. Rutherford's release was announced on Monday by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. "I extend my heartfelt thanks to the government of Qatar for its assistance in this matter," Mr. Dion said in a statement.

Qatari officials have been credited in the past with acting as intermediaries and helping to negotiate the release of hostages such as American journalist Theo Curtis, who was held in Syria by an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, and Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was a prisoner of the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years.

"Canada is very pleased that efforts undertaken to secure the release of Colin Rutherford from captivity have been successful," Mr. Dion's statement said.

The communiqué made no reference to a ransom being paid.

It was while trying to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl that American negotiators tried two years ago to swap for other captives, too. A U.S. Senate hearing was told last June by an officer who was part of a Pentagon cell dealing with hostage policy.

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"We also realized that there were civilian hostages in Pakistan that nobody was trying to free, so they were added to our mission," Lieutenant-Colonel Jason Amerine testified.

He said his team worked on a "one-for-seven" option in which seven foreigners, including Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Boyle and his wife and child, would be traded in return for one Afghan, Haji Bashir Noorzai, a warlord who had been jailed for drug trafficking.

However, Lt.-Col. Amerine said, when the Taliban came to the bargaining table, the U.S. State Department insisted instead on a "five-for-one" option, seeking only Sgt. Bergdahl in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

"The civilian hostages were forgotten during the negotiations," he testified.

Monday's statement by Mr. Dion gave no further details about Mr. Rutherford's condition or what led to his release.

But in his testimony last summer, Lt.-Col. Amerine made it clear that no foreign captive would be released without something in return. "We aren't getting Bergdahl, let alone the other hostages, for free. Every option was going to be painful," he said.

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Mr. Rutherford was a 27-year-old traveller when he disappeared in central Afghanistan in the fall of 2010. Three months later, the Taliban said they had captured him and accused him of being a foreign spy.

On various social-media sites, he described himself as being "an average Eurasian" who had journeyed into Pakistan and Afghanistan after studying math and physics and graduating from the University of Toronto in 2009.

"We understand that Mr. Rutherford was a tourist in Afghanistan; he was seeking to learn Pashto during his travels," a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said at the time of his kidnapping five years ago.

A year after he was kidnapped, Mr. Rutherford's family told the CBC that they were starting their own bid to contact his captors because government's efforts to bring him home had reached a dead end.

On Monday, government officials would not release more information about Mr. Rutherford's release, citing privacy reasons.

Mr. Dion's statement suggested that Mr. Rutherford was still overseas, saying that "we look forward to Mr. Rutherford being able to return to Canada and reunite with his family and loved ones."

Calls to the residence of Mr. Rutherford's mother, Wendy, were not answered.

CBC reported that Mr. Rutherford's family said they were "obviously overjoyed" but declined to comment further, adding that they still did not know where he is and when he will be home.

"I am glad to see that he is out. His mother was very worried," said Toronto City Councillor Jim Karygiannis, who had urged the federal government to help the family when he was an MP in 2011.

According to an acquaintance, Mr. Rutherford has two siblings. His father died two years before he was kidnapped.

In a video posted months after he was taken hostage, Mr. Rutherford said he was a tourist intent on visiting shrines and learning local languages.

Two years after Mr. Rutherford disappeared, Mr. Boyle and his pregnant wife went missing in the same region.

Mr. Boyle, who was then 29, was travelling with his wife, Caitlan Coleman, an American national.

Lt.-Col. Amerine's testimony suggests that the couple and their child are believed to have been moved by their captors to Pakistan.

With a file from The Associated Press

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More


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