An American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children — all of whom were born in captivity — were rescued on Wednesday, five years to the day since the couple was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, ABC News has learned.
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Caitlan Coleman, 31, and her husband, Joshua Boyle, 34, who were abducted while hiking in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in 2012, were secured in an exchange between Pakistani military and U.S. commandos late Wednesday after one of the longest — and strangest — American hostage ordeals in recent history, counterterrorism officials revealed.
The family has not yet departed Pakistan, however. The U.S. military had a C-130 waiting to fly the family out, U.S. officials say, but Coleman's husband Boyle would not allow the family to get on the plane and even refused to allow medical personnel perform an examination of his children. A source close to the Coleman family says the plane would have gone to Afghanistan and then to Germany.
Negotiations, officials say, on the family’s next destination are ongoing.
According to two counterterrorism officials, U.S. special operations forces were considering a raid to rescue the family until they were suddenly moved over the weekend to a new location with terrain that would have made an operation difficult. Yesterday, to the surprise of many within the U.S. military and government, the Pakistani army announced that the family had been recovered.
According to the Pakistani Army, an operation was carried out by Pakistani troops “based on actionable intelligence from US authorities,” but details remain sparse.
The Toronto Star reported that Boyle called his parents and told them that he was rescued following a shootout in which all five of his kidnappers were killed after he heard one of them say “kill the hostages.” A U.S. official told ABC News, however, that this was more of a release than a rescue. The U.S. role was limited to transporting the family out of Pakistan, the official said, and there was no firefight involving the Pakistani military.
“All we’re aware of is that there was a transfer of custody to the Pakistanis,” the official said.
In a statement delivered on Thursday morning, President Donald Trump said only that the U.S. government worked with the Pakistani government to secure the family’s release.
“The Pakistani government's cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America's wish that it do more to provide security in the region, and I want to thank the Pakistani government,” Trump said. “They worked very hard on this and I believe they're starting to respect the United States again. It's very important. I think right now a lot of countries are starting to respect the United States of America once again.”
The captor network was believed by intelligence and counterterrorism officials to have been part of the al-Qaeda-aligned Afghan Haqqani Network, the same group that held Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prisoner for five years until May 2014, but no one ever asked the families to pay ransom.
The Colemans were tipped off by the FBI yesterday that news was coming in their case.
"The U.S government called us Wednesday afternoon,” Caitlan’s father Jim Coleman told ABC News. “They told me to sit down and then they told me what had happened. All they told me was that they were in 'friendly hands.’”
The ordeal took its toll on them, and in an exclusive interview with ABC News that aired Friday on Good Morning America, Caitlan’s mother Lynda Coleman described the relief she felt during her first phone call with her daughter in years.
“It was incredible,” Lynda said. “I’ve been waiting to hear that voice for so long. And then to hear her voice and have it sound exactly like the last time I talked to her.”
Jim, however, says he remains angry at his daughter’s husband for taking her to Afghanistan in the first place.
“What I can say is taking your pregnant wife to a very dangerous place is to me and the kind of person I am, is unconscionable,” he said.
He is also struggling to understand why his son-in-law refused to let his family fly out of Pakistan on U.S. military aircraft.
“I don’t know what five years in captivity would do to somebody but if it were me and I saw you a US aircraft and US soldiers, I’d be running for it, OK?” he said.
Only days ago, Coleman, Boyle and two of their children were shown in a video recorded by their captors and sent to their families last January. The Boyle family provided it to The Toronto Star and to ABC News.
The video shows the couple’s 4-year old son sitting on his father’s lap, dressed in the same filthy clothing as in a video posted on YouTube last December. Coleman is shown cradling their second child, still an infant. A third child was born after the video was recorded, sources told ABC News.
In the video, Boyle lightheartedly cracked jokes about letters received in reply from their parents in record time and said the conditions of their captivity improved around the beginning of the year.
Coleman, who grew up in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, told her father that her personality in captivity has changed from being like one Disney heroine to another.
"I would also like to say to my father specifically that I think you would like to know that my time in — married and my time as a mother and my time in prison — that I’ve become more of a Belle than an Ariel," said Coleman, known as Caity to her parents.
Jim Coleman told ABC News earlier this week that his daughter was trying to contrast Ariel of “The Little Mermaid,” who was rebellious and defied her father, with Belle of “Beauty and the Beast,” who protected her father.
“She is telling me, ‘Dad, I wish had listened to you more and not been Ariel and more a Belle,’” the elder Coleman said. “It’s a lot of humility and self-analysis of why she is in this situation.”
A senior official involved in hostage recovery told an ABC News reporter in January 2016 that the hostage family was to be freed in a deal after the successful recovery of Colin Rutherford, another Canadian in Haqqani hands. He was soon freed, but the Coleman-Boyles were not.
It soon emerged that the Taliban were upset over reports that Anas Haqqani, the brother of the No. 2 Afghan Taliban commander, Sirajuddin Haqqani, had been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to death in secret proceedings in Kabul.
In August 2016 the Haqqani Taliban snatched an American professor and an Australian professor from the American University of Afghanistan in retaliation. That December, Caitlan Coleman and Boyle appeared in a new video — seen for the first time with their children, who were born as hostages — warning that their survival depended on a reprieve for Taliban prisoners.
Their families in the U.S. and Canada were soon told privately by Afghan officials that Anas Haqqani had been spared execution but that his release was politically impossible, U.S. and Afghan officials told ABC News earlier this year.
In the waning days — and even the last hours — of the Obama administration, diplomats tried hard to broker a deal for Coleman’s release, to no avail, according to several Obama aides who discussed the previously unreported hostage recovery efforts.
It was unclear Thursday morning whether the Boyle-Coleman family’s freedom came as the result of a new deal.
In the private January video addressed to their families, Boyle seemed more optimistic than in the ominous videos the Taliban released in December, which appear to have been made at the same time.
“Things here are going about as can be expected,” Boyle said in the January video. “But we were buoyed to receive your letter, and for the first time, we have hope that things might wrap up soon, God willing.”
President Trump, in a tax speech he made in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, made a cryptic reference to a country he did not name, saying that “something happened” and that Americans would “probably be hearing about it over the next few days.”
One counterterrorism believes it was a reference to Pakistan’s assistance in freeing Coleman and her family, the official said.
“America is being respected again. Something happened today, where a country that totally disrespected us called with some very, very important news,” Trump said Wednesday. “And one of my generals came in, they said, ‘You know, I have to tell you, a year ago they would’ve never done that.’ It was a great sign of respect. You’ll probably be hearing about it over the next few days. But this is a country that did not respect us. This is a country that respects us now. The world is starting to respect us again, believe me.”
ABC News’ Luis Martinez contributed to this report.