Express steps up efforts to free Ridley

 Express Newspapers editorial director Paul Ashford flew out to Islamabad early on Wednesday intent on doing anything he could to support Sunday Express chief reporter Yvonne Ridley, held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan since last Friday.

A Northern & Shell spokesman said: "Paul Ashford is flying out to ensure the company is in a position to help with any constructive steps which may be taken towards the release of Yvonne. The Foreign Office has been fully briefed on the trip and Paul will be working closely with them."

Ashford has taken with him an Urdu-speaking company lawyer and it is thought he will liaise with aid agencies and authorities. He wants to offer as much practical and demonstrable support for Ridley as the company can muster.

Since Ridley’s capture on Friday as she crossed the border near Jalalabad, disguised in a woman’s burka, she has been kept under guard in a house where she can use the garden.

The question of whether she will be charged with spying still hangs over her. While there was expectation at the weekend she might be freed quickly, observers are now less hopeful.

"It has all the hallmarks of a long runner. She is plainly a valuable currency for the Taliban and they will not rush to resolve it," said one journalist close to the negotiating process.

The Foreign Office, while doing all it can to secure her release, is said to be not best pleased by the whole affair. Ridley was picked up near Dour Baba with two guides. Christina Lamb, one of the press pack with her in Peshawar, wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that the pressure was on women journalists to enter Taliban territory after BBC world affairs editor John Simpson got in, also dressed in a burka.

Colleagues say Ridley – who has worked for the Sunday Sun, Newcastle, Wales on Sunday, The Mirror, Sunday Times, Observer and Independent – has the chutzpah that would have led to her taking up the challenge.

Jacky Rowland, BBC correspondent in northern Afghanistan, said she would think "very soberly" about going into Taliban-controlled areas. Speaking on the day Ridley was captured, Rowland said it was a warning to "any gung-ho journalists thinking of going there that it is extremely dangerous".

"Safety advisers at the BBC have warned us against going into the Taliban side. They don’t like the Western media and they particularly dislike Western women."

Because the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s enemy in Afghanistan, wants press coverage, Rowland – who is working from their territory – said she has not encountered any difficulties "in an extremely patriarchal country".

Women in Journalism has written to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urging him to do everything to secure Ridley’s immediate release. Chair-woman Rebekah Wade said: "Yvonne Ridley has been extremely brave to venture into Afghanistan in pursuit of a story of global importance. We sincerely hope that all diplomatic efforts will be made on her behalf to secure her immediate release.”

By Jean Morgan

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