10 Chinese spies caught in Kabul get a quiet pardon, fly home in chartered aircraft

Afghanistan has let off the 10 Chinese nationals caught on 10 December for operating a terror cell in the capital city of Kabul and allowed them to leave the country, people familiar with the matter said on Monday. The 10 members of the module were flown out of the country in a plane arranged by the Chinese government.

Hindustan Times had reported the detention of the 10 Chinese nationals by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) for being part of an espionage module on 25 December. Afghanistan had offered to pardon the 10 Chinese nationals on the condition that Beijing apologise for deploying the 10 persons including at least one woman, believed to be linked to China’s spy agency, Ministry of State Security.

The terms of the release of the 10 Chinese spies is not known.

Diplomats and security officials in Kabul, however, confirmed to Hindustan Times that the 10 had been allowed to board a chartered aircraft that flew them out of the country on Saturday after clearance from President Ashraf Ghani. The 10-member module, evacuated after 23 days in detention, had not been formally charged.

President Ghani, who had been briefed about the detentions when Afghanistan’s intelligence agency made the arrests beginning 10 December, had tasked First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former NDS chief who is credited with resurrecting the Afghan intelligence agency, to handle the case.

As expected, Amrullah Saleh who releases pointers from his security briefings on his Facebook page, had put out what appeared to be a cryptic denial of the arrest of the Chinese nationals on 27 December.

“No foreign citizen has been arrested in an effort operation in the Khairkhaneh area. The arrested are the palmadis that are under the scope. A number of them have been arrested on suspicion of being involved in kidnapping and assassination…,” Afghanistan’s First Vice President said.

Amrullah Saleh had earlier conveyed Kabul’s offer to release the 10 spies to China’s envoy Wang Yu if Beijing submits a formal apology that admits to the violation of international norms and a betrayal of Kabul’s trust. Ambassador Wang Yu is learnt to have insisted at this meeting that Kabul does not declare the detentions. An investigative report by an Australian newspaper in mid-December had already spotlighted how Chinese communist party members had infiltrated some of the world’s powerful and influential agencies, including the consulates of Western nations and security agencies.

There has been no statement by the Chinese foreign ministry on the espionage module busted in Kabul.

A senior diplomat in Kabul had earlier told Hindustan Times that at least two of the 10 Chinese nationals – Li Yangyang and Sha Hung – were in contact with the Haqqani Network, the terrorist group that doubles as the sword arm of the Taliban. Sha Hung used to run a restaurant in Kabul’s Shirpur while Li Yangyang was learnt to have been operating for the Chinese Intelligence since July-August.

The NDS team had seized arms, ammunition and Ketamine powder, a recreational drug , from Li Yangyang’s house in the western Kabul neighbourhood of Kart-e-Char when the first round of raids were carried out on 10 December.

The Afghan security establishment believes the 10 detainees were creating a fake East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) module in Afghanistan to entrap ETIM operatives in Afghanistan.

ETIM is a small Islamic separatist group alleged to be active in Xinjiang province, home to China’s ethnic minority Uighur Muslims. Its founder Hasan Mahsum, an Uyghur from Xinjiang’s Kashgar region, was shot dead in 2003 by Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad has been playing along with China that has been accused of running camps in Xinjiang region, where more than 1 million people are held in camps.

Rights groups say China uses the ETIM threat as an excuse to impose restrictions on Uyghurs and discredit human rights activists outside China. The United States last month revoked the terror tag slapped on ETIM although the group continues to be designated by the UN Security Council.