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Diplomats walk across the border to freedom: Afghan tribal leader releases three hostages unconditionally after 23 days

A BRITISH diplomat who strayed inside Afghanistan and was kidnapped and held captive for 23 days by a tribe of drug smugglers has been released, a Pakistani official said yesterday.

Jack Dobbs, a second secretary at the British Deputy High Commission in Karachi, was captured along with two other diplomats, a German and a Dutchman, when they made an unauthorised crossing over the Pakistani border into an opium-growing region of southern Afghanistan. All three diplomats, who were reportedly monitoring this year's huge harvest of opium, were surrounded by armed tribesmen and abducted. A Norwegian diplomat and two Pakistanis riding in a second jeep managed to flee.

Irfan Elahi, Assistant Commissioner of the Chaman border district, said that the tribal leader, Mohammed Nabi Noorzai, yesterday unconditionally freed the three diplomats and handed them over to a council of tribal elders within Afghanistan. 'Now it is up to the shura (the tribal council) to send the diplomats back to Pakistan,' said Mr Elahi. British diplomats confirmed that the three had been released. 'They have been walked across the border,' one said.

Even by Afghanistan's bloody standards of treachery, the Noorzai tribal chieftain's reputation is bad. The tribal council earlier had cast him out, declaring him no better than a bandit. Armed with everything from Stinger missiles to rocket-propelled grenades left over from the Afghan holy war against the Russians, Mohammed Nabi and his gang over the past few months had tried to muscle in to the opium lands of neighbouring tribes.

Mohammed Nabi had earlier vowed to free the Briton and his diplomat colleagues, Stefan Elhert from Germany and Gerd Piening from the Netherlands, only if the chieftain's two brothers were released by Pakistani authorities. They faced 48 years in prison for smuggling US-made Stinger missiles.

Officially, the British High Commission in Islamabad refused to enter into the hostage trade-off, as did the other embassies involved. Early attempts by local Pakistani officials to negotiate their release with the Afghan kidnappers were reportedly halted by Islamabad. The Home Secretary, Javed Burki, expressed anger over what he saw as the three diplomats' disregard for Pakistani law. Mr Burki said: 'These foreigners were misusing our hospitality and crossed into Afghanistan illegally.'

The chieftain's opinion of diplomats is low. In 1990, Mohammed Nabi's brother was a tribal commander. He was reportedly approached by the US embassy and offered dollars 2m ( pounds 1.6m) to stop his tribe from growing opium that year. The Noorzais agreed, but Washington later refused to pay the bribe. The commander was assassinated. After Mohammed Nabi took over, he ordered his tribe to grow opium on every inch of land. Last year, the Noorzais reportedly produced 80 tons of opium, most of which was converted to heroin and smuggled to Britain and the rest of Europe. This year, the Noorzais will sell even more, according to drug experts in Islamabad.

KABUL - Fierce artillery battles between Afghan troops and renegade guerrilla forces spread into the centre of Kabul yesterday and hospitals reported that more than 300 people were injured while dozens had been killed, Reuter reports.