ISLAMABAD — The Afghan Taliban has released a video showing its fighters handing over captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl to the U.S. military in an eastern province that borders Pakistan Saturday.
The Taliban video shows U.S. Army Sgt. Bergdahl, waiting in a white pick-up truck surrounded by heavily armed Taliban fighters. Most of them have their faces covered.
As a commentator narrates the events, a clean-shaven Bergdahl is seen with a close-cropped haircut, wearing a white salwar kameez, the traditional Afghan clothing. He blinks frequently as he looks at and listens to his captors.
As Blackhawk helicopters circle overhead, one lands nearby and the captive soldier is then led to his rescuers by two men, one taking Bergdahl by the hand as the other waves a white flag.
A Taliban eyewitness claiming to be part of the handover narrates the event in local Pashto language.
He said the helicopter landed just about 15 meters away from us. We had 18 armed men with us for our protection, he says, and the Americans were informed in advance about it.
After the U.S. helicopter lands, three men emerge and walk toward the group, quickly shake hands and bring Bergdahl back to the helicopter. Before the freed prisoner boards, he is quickly patted down. The entire handover takes less than a minute.
The purported eyewitness said the Taliban had hoped to speak more with the Americans through their translator but said they appeared tense and only asked if Bergdahl was in good health. The eyewitness says the Taliban replied in the affirmative.
As the helicopter departs, a message in English appears on screen, saying “Don’ come back to Afghanistan.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department said authorities have no reason to doubt the video’s authenticity, but are reviewing it.
The video also includes scenes that purportedly show the five Taliban militants who were released from detention in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl. The militants are shown being received by Taliban representatives in Qatar.
The commentator describes the five released Taliban men as heroes.
The Obama administration has come under fire at home from U.S. lawmakers who say they were not properly informed of the deal to free the five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for Bergdahl. Afghan officials have also expressed worries the released men will rejoin the insurgency.
However, speaking to reporters in Kabul on Tuesday, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham rejected the criticism. He reiterated that as part of the agreement with Qatari authorities, arrangements have been made to ensure that the members of the Taliban transferred to Qatar are under supervision and do not post threat to the United States.
“We are glad to have Sgt. Bergdahl back in U.S. hands and there is no question in any of this that we are supporting or otherwise encouraging the Taliban through this process. This was purely about the return of our soldier. We do, however, hope that reconciliation discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban will get underway and if this encourages that process that would be good,” said Cunningham.
U.S. officials believe Sgt. Bergdahl was in the custody of the Haqqani Network, one of the region’s deadliest militant groups, and was held most of the time somewhere in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency. In a previously released Afghan Taliban video, Sgt. Bergdahl was seen with a senior Haqqani commander, Mullah Sangeen, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the Waziristan area late last year.
Earlier, some of Bergdahl’s former comrades have accused him of abandoning his post and prompting a massive search in which American military personnel were killed.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was unfair to Bergdahl’s family to “presume anything, ” saying “we don’t do that in the United States, we rely on the facts.”
Hagel told reporters at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels that he “doesn’t know of any circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to get Bergdahl.”
U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno said Wednesday taking care of Bergdahl’s health and his proper reintegration is the “first and foremost” priority. Odierno issued a statement saying “at the appropriate time, we will conduct a thorough, transparent and complete review of the circumstances surrounding his capture.”
The freed soldier was flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany for an evaluation.