By Jessica Donati and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) – A dazed Bowe Bergdahl is led by two militants, one carrying a makeshift white flag on a stick, to a Blackhawk helicopter in eastern Afghanistan ending his five years’ in captivity, a video released by the Taliban showed on Wednesday.
In the first publicly aired footage of Bergdahl’s dramatic handover to the U.S. military at the weekend, the clip shows Taliban cadres dotted on nearby hills armed with rocket launchers watching the transfer.
The operation, from the moment the helicopter touched the ground amid a cloud of dust to take-off, was all over in a minute.
“Do not panic,” the militants shout as the Blackhawk lands in the barren valley deep in Khost province, close to the border with Pakistan.
Bergdahl, a U.S. army sergeant, was released on Saturday in exchange for five senior insurgent leaders, who had been held in a U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since it opened in 2002.
Before his rescue, Bergdahl is seen sitting in the rear seat of a 4-wheel-drive truck, blinking rapidly, apparently either dazed by the light or anxious about the events unfolding around him.
A plane and helicopters are seen circling overhead as fighters chant “long live our mujahideen” and “long live the spiritual leader”, referring to the Taliban’s reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar.
As the Blackhawk lands, two of the militants approach the helicopter, one carrying a white cloth crudely tied to a stick and the other leading Bergdahl by the hand.
Three men walk from the American chopper. One is an interpreter, the Taliban’s reporter says in the clip.
TENSE 60 SECONDS
One of Bergdahl’s escorts has his faced covered by a checkered scarf and in the cloud of dust thrown up by the Blackhawk, the tension is clear. Soldiers dressed in military fatigue stand by the helicopter observing the handover.
One of the American team steps forward to shake their hands, keeping as wide a distance as possible as though worried the militants might blow themselves up.
He quickly offers his right hand to one, his left hand to the other and simultaneously grabs Bergdahl by the arm. In the same movement, he sweeps his hand across to Bergdahl’s back.
“We told them: if he is not in good health, please tell us. We tried to communicate with them through their interpreter, but they did not wait,” the Taliban reporter says in the clip.
As the first man leads the freed prisoner to the aircraft, the interpreter waves and the second man steps backwards, his eyes still trained on the Taliban.
A careful but rapid body search is performed before Bergdahl is helped aboard the Blackhawk. Then, they take position with their legs dangling and lift off.
The video starts playing a Taliban victory song and the message in English flashes up: “Don’ come back to Afghanistan”. Then, it cuts to the arrival of the five released leaders in Qatar after more than a decade spent in Guantanamo Bay, where they are received with warm embraces.
The video’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The Pentagon said it had no reason to doubt its authenticity, but was reviewing it.
“COME AGAIN, YOU WON’T LEAVE ALIVE”
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after leaving his base in unclear circumstances and spent five years in captivity, learning Pashto and taking an interest in Islamic books, according to the Taliban.
The 28-year-old is now in a military hospital in Germany, undergoing physical and mental assessments.
Bergdahl appears clean-shaven, in a traditional, white salwar kameez as he squints at the Taliban militants outside leaning in to talk to him. His head is also shaved.
They tell him: next time you come back to Afghanistan, you will not leave alive.
Eighteen fighters, the Taliban’s reporter explains, dot the hills around the valley as agreed with the Americans, including some armed with rocket-launchers.
The initial euphoria over Bergdahl’s release has been clouded by claims by fellow soldiers who say the U.S. sergeant deserted his post in 2009 and too many lives were lost in the manhunt that followed.
Some members of Congress also say the president broke the law by not giving them advance notice of the swap.
(Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)