OTTAWA (AFP) — Canadian journalist Mellissa Fung, recently held hostage for four weeks in Afghanistan, said Wednesday she was freed in a prisoner swap arranged by Afghan intelligence for the family of her abductors.
In an interview with public broadcaster CBC, Fung said her captors were a criminal family who made a living kidnapping foreigners and demanding ransoms, and that she was randomly targeted.
"I now understand that Afghan intelligence had sort of fingered the family of the ringleader of this gang and had arrested a whole bunch of them," Fung told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
"And it was a prisoner exchange that they agreed to release the family if the group would release me, and that's what ended up happening."
Fung, 35, was freed on Saturday after being kidnapped in Kabul on October 12 and held captive in a hole in the ground for 28 days, sometimes chained and blindfolded.
The CBC reporter was handed over to Afghan intelligence officials late Saturday near the town of Maydan Shah, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of the capital.
On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan that Taliban leaders or "dangerous militants" were released in exchange for Fung's freedom, or that any ransom had been paid.
Canada's ambassador to Kabul, Ron Hoffmann, said Wednesday: "As part of their investigation (Afghan authorities) did detain briefly some family members of the kidnappers which was ultimately an important point of leverage to help secure her release."
But, "I want to be unequivocal about the fact there was no ransom paid, and there were no prisoners released," he added.
In the interview, Fung recounted how she was taken hostage as she was leaving a refugee camp she had visited outside Kabul for a news story when "a car drove up."
"It happened so quickly," she recalled. "Two guys with big guns came out of the car. One of them grabbed me, the other pointed a gun at our fixer. There was a bit of a struggle."
"I think I hit one, and then he stabbed me in the shoulder, and then next thing I knew, I was inside the car on the floor of the backseat, and they were driving off."
She described her captors as 19 or 20 years old, and nervous. "They said, 'We're not going to kill you. We just want money,'" she said.
Fung tried to hide a cell phone in her pants, but a beep signaled an incoming message and her captors took it away. She had lost a contact lens in the scuffle too and so could not see well.
But she managed to spot that they eventually stopped at the base of a mountain, hiked for several hours, then traveled by motorcycle to a village where she was introduced to her new home: a hole in the ground.
The hole was covered by wood and dirt, and two air vents leading to the surface were hidden by rocks. She could hear passers-by and her captors warned her not to scream to bring attention to herself.
The brother of one of the kidnappers mostly watched over her, Fung said.
Kidnapping was a "family business" for them, she said, explaining that her keeper had spoken of five brothers, a sister and mother involved in the venture, and of their father in Pakistan who negotiated ransoms.
"He (also) had an uncle who was there with him and the other people sort of in that group where I was staying were all his friends," she said.
"They said they were Taliban, but I never really believed they were Taliban. They didn't seem organized enough or political enough to be Taliban."
"They said that other Taliban were offering them money for me," but that they had declined.
Fung said that to pass the time she "made plans" for moving to Toronto, for a Christmas party, for a vacation, and kept a diary that was later lost. Over time, her stab wound scabbed over and healed.
At one point, she broke down and cried, and her captor held her hand and told her not to worry, that a ransom would be paid and she would be released soon.
Fung also once feigned illness, hoping it might create a sense of urgency and speed up her release.
On the day of her release, she was told she would be freed, blindfolded and walked to a parked car on a desolate road. The brother who had been with her for most of the 28 days told her he was upset that no ransom had been paid.
He said goodbye and "A man took me and said, hello, how are you? And put me in the back of the car," she said. There were armed guards all around.
Later, Fung learned that this new acquaintance was an Afghan intelligence officer.
Together, they drove to Kabul, and she called her father on a cell phone from the backseat of the car to reassure him that she was okay.
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