New York, October 3, 2001—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by comments reportedly made by a senior official in Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, accusing British journalist Yvonne Ridley of "ill intentions" and suggesting the reporter may be working as a "special forces" agent.
On September 28, Taliban soldiers arrested Ridley, a reporter for London's Sunday Express newspaper, along with two male guides in a village near the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban information minister, said in an interview published by Reuters today that Ridley "must have had ill intentions" in coming to Afghanistan.
"America and Britain talk of having their special forces in Afghanistan. She could be one of those special forces," Jamal said.
The Taliban's sensitivities about foreign espionage activities are particularly acute amid reports that U.S. and British special forces have conducted reconnaissance operations in Afghanistan to prepare for an assault on Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
"Surely her crime is high. How come she arrives here in such a situation without any documents despite the ban on foreign journalists in Afghanistan," Jamal told Reuters.
According to her newspaper, Ridley had failed several times to secure a visa to Afghanistan because the Taliban are currently barring entry to most foreign correspondents.
"Taliban officials have nothing to gain by banning foreign journalists at the very moment when the world needs information about conditions facing ordinary Afghans," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "The Taliban should release Ridley and her colleagues immediately."
A Taliban diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse that Ridley had entered the country from Pakistan disguised in a burqa—the all-encompassing shroud that is the militia's mandatory dress code for women. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) news agency quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying that Ridley "was not carrying any passport and had entered Afghanistan illegally."
The Taliban say that a special investigative team has been dispatched to Jalalabad, where Ridley is being held in a residential compound, according to the AIP. Little is known about the condition of the guides, who were identified as Afghans in some news reports.
Under the laws of the Taliban regime, espionage is punishable by death.