LAHORE/ISLAMABAD - There is no breakthrough about safe return of the crew members of ill-fated M-17 helicopter of the Punjab government which crash-landed in Afghanistan.

However, highly-placed officials told The Nation yesterday that influential groups of religious-right and tribal elders have been engaged for the recovery of the crew who reportedly were taken hostage by the Afghan Taliban.

The helicopter was on its way to Russia via Uzbekistan for maintenance when it crashed near Kabul Highway on Thursday.

Taliban, who control parts of Logar province, have said that the seven-member held crew - including retired military officers, other members of Punjab chief minister’s staff and a Russian navigator- were safe and being taken care of.

Senior officials close to the developments said that former security officials and diplomats who have familiarity with the Taliban apparatus have also been contacted for their inputs for safe recovery of all the hostages.

The officials declined to tell precisely which Taliban commander or group was holding the crew and what were their demands. They however said the helicopter was found by a scouting group of Taliban which shifted them to some unknown location.

Meanwhile, a group affiliated with killed ex-chief of the TTP Hakimullah Mehsud too has claimed that they were holding the Pakistani officials of the crashed copter and they would kill them if any rescue operation launched.

Qari Saifullah Mehsud, spokesman of Hakimullah Mehsud group made this claim in brief contacts with few journalists. He also claimed that the group would release a video of the crew.

There is little possibility of TTP activity in that area which is either controlled by the Afghan Taliban or coalition forces.

Security officials who have served in the tribal regions said the Mehsud group has made this claim just for ‘company’s advertisement’ as the group is desperately seeking to restore their ‘fear power’ which they have lost in the result of Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber 1-2 military operations that uprooted them from the Pakistani side of the border.

Logar province, which falls in the east of Afghan capital Kabul, is heavily guarded by the coalition troops and local forces and TTP has little or no presence in that area. After it was flushed out from Pakistani tribal areas, the terrorist organisation has found refuge in pockets of Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Paktia and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said the government is exhausting “formal and informal channels” for recovery of the passengers. The foreign ministry also said it was in touch with Afghan government officials.

Some sources in Islamabad said that Russian government was also making efforts for the safe return of the Russian national and other crew members.

Asked about what efforts Kabul government was making in this regard, security experts said Hamidullah Hamid, the governor of Azra district in Logar province, says that government has no control in the area.

“All seven people aboard the chopper had been detained by Taliban after the crash. The government has no control of the area where the chopper crashed and burst into flames,” they quoted Hamidullah as saying.

Media reports from Kabul said Afghan government has set up a committee to investigate the matter. Afghan President presided over a high-level meeting on Saturday and discussed the latest developments on the emergency landing in the Azra district of the eastern province, his palace said in a statement.

“A delegation was assigned in order to look into different aspects of the case – including the circumstances surrounding the emergency landing- and whether specifics of the MI-17 helicopter match the ones rendered in the request letter and permission documents,” the statement said.

“The meeting also assigned a committee to review the existing rules, regulations and procedures concerning fly-over requests for using Afghan airspace,” it said.

It said the committee will look into any probable gaps, and present a comprehensive plan that can preclude such incidents.

“The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan reserves the right to take diplomatic measures based on the findings of the ongoing investigation,” it said.

However, the statement did not say anything about the efforts of the Afghan government to secure the release of the crew members.

JAWAD R AWAN and Maqbool Malik