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Taliban aims for propaganda points with release of new Bergdahl video

By releasing a 17-minute video showing the handover of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban sought to build Wednesday on what the militants have described as a major propaganda victory.

Bergdahl was freed Saturday as part of a prisoner swap in which U.S. officials released five Taliban detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay into the custody of the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which mediated the negotiations.

Taliban officials have touted the deal as a sign of their strength in eastern Afghanistan, where the exchange is believed to have taken place.

The first video of Bergdahl to surface since his release shows the 28-year-old soldier emerging from the back of a Taliban pickup truck wearing an Afghan-style tunic and gray shawl, his head and face clean-shaven. He appears calm but slightly disoriented, blinking repeatedly as he listens to his captors.

More than a dozen militants, their faces mostly shrouded in scarves, are positioned around Bergdahl on a hillside as a Black Hawk helicopter approaches. Before it lands, some of the Taliban shout, “Long life to mujahedin,” or holy warriors, as the militants refer to themselves.

Two militants, one waving a white flag, then walk Bergdahl across a field and hand him over to three men in Western clothes, believed to be U.S. special forces, who move him into the waiting Black Hawk.

The helicopter, emblazoned with the number 41, quickly lifts off, as some of the U.S. personnel aboard wave goodbye to the militants.

The exchange lasts less than a minute and appears uneventful, mirroring accounts given by U.S. officials.

In a statement released Wednesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said U.S. defense officials are reviewing the video but "have no reason to doubt" its authenticity.

Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, has been reported to be in stable condition at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. His release has provoked controversy in the United States, where some former members of his military unit contend that he had grown disillusioned with the war and deserted his base when he was captured in 2009.

Although Obama administration officials have long described Bergdahl as a hero -- he is the only U.S. service member who was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan -- Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that the Pentagon had not ruled out pursuing desertion charges against him.

Critics of the deal also say it has emboldened the Taliban, whose reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, released a statement claiming a major victory for the insurgents.

The Taliban announced a fresh offensive last month, ahead of a runoff election scheduled for June 14 in which Afghans will select President Hamid Karzai’s successor. On Wednesday, an explosion in northern Faryab province killed three civilians and injured 12 others, local officials said.

Explosives placed inside a teapot detonated in a busy market in the provincial capital of Maimana, said Abdul Satar Barez, the deputy governor of Faryab. An initial investigation found that a person wearing a burka -- a body-covering garment widely worn by Afghan women -- brought the teapot into the market and asked a shopkeeper to watch it while she stepped away.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Baktash is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India, with contributions from staff writers Kathleen Hennessey in Warsaw and Christi Parsons in Washington.

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