Kidnapped son of slain Pakistan governor found after five years

Islamabad (AFP) - The kidnapped son of a liberal Pakistani governor assassinated by his bodyguard has been found after five years, senior officials said Tuesday, just over a week after his father's killer was hanged.

Shahbaz Taseer is "hale and hearty", military spokesman Asim Baja said, tweeting two images of the bearded and smiling son of Salmaan Taseer that he said were taken in the southwestern city of Quetta late Tuesday.

Taseer had been abducted by Islamist gunmen from the city of Lahore in August 2011, months after his father was killed for opposing the country's controversial blasphemy laws.

The governor's assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged on February 29 in what analysts described as a "key moment" in Pakistan's long battle with extremism.

The Pakistani Taliban have never officially confirmed their involvement in the kidnapping, but a militant source told AFP Tuesday that an army operation in the tribal areas had made it "difficult" for the group to keep him.

"That's why they preferred to set him free," the source said.

Militant commanders have privately told AFP in the past Taseer was being kept somewhere in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan.

Pakistan began its operation to clear Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds in North Waziristan in 2014. The source Tuesday said Taseer was moved after Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched.

"Acting on a tip off, intelligence forces and police went to a compound in the Kuchlak district some 25 kilometres north of Quetta" in the southwestern province of Balochistan, said Aitzaz Goraya, head of the provincial counter-terrorism department, who described Taseer as being in "feeble" health.

"We surrounded the compound and we raided it. We didn't find anyone. A single person was there and he told us my name is Shahbaz and my father's name is Salmaan Taseer."

But the owner of a roadside restaurant in Kuchlak told reporters that Taseer was recovered after he came to his restaurant on foot on Tuesday evening, made a phone call and then personnel from paramilitary the Frontier Corps came and picked him up.

"He had grown long hair with a scruffy beard and was frantically asking for a telephone or mobile phone" the owner of Al-Saleem hotel told reporters in Kuchlak.

"He ate food here, paid a bill of 350 rupees and then called someone from a waiter's mobile," the owner said, adding that minutes later Frontier Corps personnel arrived.

A second militant source said the Taliban had been demanding up to two billion rupees ($20 million) for Taseer's release.

Security analyst Imtiaz Gul said it was possible a ransom had been paid and that Taseer had been abandoned by his abductors once they received the money.

- 'Big day' for family -

Mumtaz Qadri, the police bodyguard who shot the governor 28 times in Islamabad in 2011, was hanged last week in a move analysts said demonstrated the state's willingness to uphold the rule of law against extremism.

The governor had called for reforms to the country's controversial blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty and which critics say is largely misused.

But Qadri was hailed as a hero by many conservatives eager to drown out calls to soften the legislation.

Shahbaz Taseer's brother Shehryar said on Twitter last week the hanging was a victory for Pakistan, but not his family.

"The safe return of my brother is the only victory my family wants," he wrote.

Shahbaz Taseer's father-in-law Salman Ghani also confirmed his freedom to AFP.

Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who belonged to the same Pakistan People's Party as Salmaan Taseer and whose own son was kidnapped by suspected Taliban militants in May 2013, told Geo News: "It is a very big day for Salman's family."

He added: "After this release, I am very hopeful that my own son will be freed."