The family of a five-year-old British boy kidnapped in Pakistan yesterday denied that a ransom was paid to secure his release from an armed gang.
There was jubilation in Sahil Saeed's home town of Oldham as news came through in the early hours that he had been found wandering alone in a field in the Punjabi village of Kharian, about 20 miles from where he was taken. Police said Sahil was barefoot and looked as if his hair had been cut, but appeared otherwise unscathed.
The gunmen demanded £100,000 when they seized Sahil at the end of a holiday at his grandparent's home in Jhelum nearly two weeks ago. The family said the sum was way beyond the means of the boy's unemployed father, Raja Naqqash Saeed.
Rana Sanaullah, the Punjab law minister, would not say whether any money was handed to the kidnappers, or by whom. "An international gang was involved... and it was demanding the ransom [be paid] outside Pakistan in a European country," he said.
However, Sahil's grandfather, Raja Mohammed Basharat, said last night: "According to my information, no ransom has been paid."
Mr Saeed returned to Britain late last week against the advice of Pakistani officials, prompting speculation that he was returning to organise the ransom. Ministers and police insisted yesterday that he was not a suspect in the investigation, although one "close family member" was among two men being held in custody. The Pakistani Interior minister, Rehman Malik, said yesterday that other relatives were suspected but Saeed's family fiercely denied any involvement.
With the child now safe, detectives in Britain, Pakistan and an unnamed European country where a ransom is said to have been paid stepped up the hunt for the gang. One theory is that the kidnappers may have been based among the large Pakistani community in Barcelona, Spain, where phone calls were traced during the negotiations.
The paying of ransoms is relatively common in Pakistan, where kidnap is a thriving business, although many cases go unreported. Failure to comply can have tragic consequences – a fact underlined with the discovery yesterday of the body of a two-year-old girl held for ransom near Peshawar.
For the Saeed family, however, the outcome was happier. Speaking at home in Oldham, Sahil's mother, Akila Naqqash, struggled to take in the news which followed a false report of his release last week. "It was amazing. At first I thought it was not true," she said. "He was going on and on and on about his toys – just a normal little boy."
News of Saeed's release was also broken to his friends at Rushcroft Primary School, where prayers were said at a special assembly. Sahil's parents are expected to fly to Pakistan today to be reunited with their son.
David Thompson, the assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester, said: "This still remains a very active criminal investigation. [British police] and the Pakistani authorities are still determined to bring people to justice and that will be a high priority in the coming hours, days and weeks."