WASHINGTON (AP) – An American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children have been released after years of being held captive by a group with ties to the Taliban and called a terrorist organization by the United States, American and Pakistani officials said Thursday.
U.S. officials said Pakistan secured the release of Caitlan Coleman of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, and her husband, Canadian Joshua Boyle, who were abducted five years ago while traveling in Afghanistan and had been held by the Haqqani network.
Coleman was pregnant when she was captured. The couple had three children while in captivity, and all have been freed, U.S. officials said.
“Yesterday, the United States government, working in conjunction with the Government of Pakistan, secured the release of the Boyle-Coleman family from captivity in Pakistan,” President Donald Trump said in a statement. “Today they are free.”
The Pakistani military confirmed the release and said the family was “being repatriated to the country of their origin.”
But as of Thursday morning, the family’s precise whereabouts were unclear and it was not immediately known when they would return to North America. The family was not in U.S. custody, though they were together in a safe, but undisclosed, location in Pakistan, according to a U.S. national security official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials had planned on moving the family out of Pakistan on a U.S. transport plane, but at the last minute Boyle would not get on, the official said.
Another U.S. official said Boyle was nervous about being in “custody” given his background. Boyle was previously married to the sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian man who spent 10 years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured in 2002 in a firefight at an al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan.
Officials discounted any link between that background and Boyle’s capture, with one official describing it as a “horrible coincidence.”
The couple has told U.S. officials that they wanted to fly commercially to Canada, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the situation.
The release came together rapidly Wednesday. It happened nearly five years to the day since Coleman and Boyle lost touch with their families while traveling in a mountainous region near the Afghan capital of Kabul.
The couple set off in the summer 2012 for a journey that took them to Russia, the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then to Afghanistan. Coleman’s parents last heard from their son-in-law on Oct. 8, 2012, from an internet cafe in what Boyle described as an “unsafe” part of Afghanistan.
In 2013, the couple appeared in two videos asking the U.S. government to free them from the Taliban.
Coleman’s parents, Jim and Lyn Coleman, told the online Circa News service in July 2016 that they received a letter from their daughter in November 2015, in which she wrote that she’d given birth to a second child in captivity. It’s unclear whether they knew she’d had a third.
“I pray to hear from you again, to hear how everybody is doing,” the letter said.
In that interview, Jim Coleman issued a plea to top Taliban commanders to be “kind and merciful” and let the couple go.
“As a man, father and now grandfather, I am asking you to show mercy and release my daughter, her husband, and our beautiful grandchildren,” Jim Coleman said. “Please grant them an opportunity to continue their lives with us, and bring peace to their families.”
The family was being held by the Haqqani network. U.S. officials call the group a terrorist organization and have targeted its leaders with drone strikes. But the group also operates like a criminal network. Unlike the Islamic State group, it does not typically execute Western hostages, preferring to ransom them for cash.
The U.S. has long criticized Pakistan for failing to aggressively go after the Haqqanis. In recent remarks on his Afghanistan policy, Trump noted billions paid to Pakistan “at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
In his statement Thursday, he described the release as “a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan.”
“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region,” he said. “We hope to see this type of cooperation and teamwork in helping secure the release of remaining hostages and in our future joint counterterrorism operations.”