The Taliban last night released a video showing the moment they handed Bowe Bergdahl over to American special forces in Afghanistan.
About a dozen armed men, their faces covered in scarves, wave white flags as they guard a Toyota 4WD containing the captured soldier. "Don' come back to Afghanistan," [sic] reads a caption on the video produced by the Taliban media arm.
Sergeant Bergdahl, 28, looking relaxed with a blanket draped over his shoulders, is brought out as a Black Hawk helicopter lands in the clearing. Fixed wing surveillance aircraft fly overhead.
Special forces soldiers stay at the aircraft as three men, not wearing uniforms, come forward to receive the prisoner, hugging Bergdahl, who had been held for almost five years.
It is all over in 10 carefully choreographed seconds. The exchange is carried out under the watch of militants, armed with rocket propelled grenades, in the hills.
Bergdahl's release has sparked controversy in the US, where his former comrades accuse him of deserting and putting American lives at risk as troops searched for the missing soldier. Republican critics have also questioned the deal that saw five senior Taliban commander released in return.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that Bergdahl may still be disciplined if the army finds evidence of misconduct.
The New York Times had earlier cited a former military official as saying Bergdahl slipped away from his base near the Afghan border with Pakistan, leaving a note saying he had become disillusioned with the army and the war and was going to start a new life.
"Our army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred," Dempsey said. He stressed that Bergdahl was innocent until proven guilty, and that the military would continue to care for him and his family.
"The questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover any US service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts."
Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Bergdahl, who is being cared for at a US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, had not yet spoken with his parents. "That step will be taken when the psychologists and other medical professionals will determine the time is right."
President Barack Obama insisted the swap was justified. "Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity. Period. Full stop."
He conceded that in the end the five freed men could eventually attempt to harm the US. He insisted that, while the specifics of the deal had not been discussed with Congress 30 days in advance, the possibility of a swap had been. In the end, he said, time was of the essence.
- AFP, AP, Independent, Telegraph