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Journalists held by Taliban endured death threats

AN Afghan journalist held by Taliban militants with a New York Times reporter said yesterday he was beaten and repeatedly threatened by captors whose demands kept changing during their seven-month ordeal.

After being abducted, Afghan reporter Tahir Ludin and Times colleague David Rohde 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.

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 in November and to translate.

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 he considered committing suicide a number of times as their imprisonment stretched on.

The New York Times reported that Ludin and Rohde escaped Friday by climbing over the wall of a compound where they were held in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. They had planned the escape for a number of weeks, securing a rope and plotting to keep their guards awake late into the night so they would sleep soundly while the two went out a window, The New York Times said.

The reporters also waited for an evening when the electricity was running so the noise of the air conditioner would cover up any noise they made. They told the newspaper their driver had decided to join the Taliban.

Once out of the compound, the two found a Pakistani army scout, who led them to a nearby base, The New York Times said. On Saturday, the two were flown to the US military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, the paper reported.

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.

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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