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Idaho hometown of captive U.S. soldier rallies in his support

By Laura Zuckerman

HAILEY, Idaho (Reuters) - An estimated 2,000 supporters rallied on Saturday in the Idaho hometown of prisoner-of-war Bowe Bergdahl to call for the safe return of the U.S. Army sergeant believed to be held captive by Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan.

The rally, the largest yet for the only known American prisoner of war tied to the Afghanistan war, marked the latest effort by residents of Hailey, a close-knit town of 7,000, to draw attention to Bergdahl's plight and push for his release.

Bergdahl, now 27, was serving with an Alaska-based infantry unit when he disappeared from his base in southern Afghanistan in June 2009 and was taken captive by the Taliban.

The gathering in Hailey capped a week of renewed hope for Bergdahl's release after reports that planned peace talks between the United States and the Taliban could yield a possible prisoner swap as a confidence-building measure.

U.S. officials were due to hold preliminary discussions with the Taliban on Thursday on ending the 12-year-old war but they were called off when Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the fanfare surrounding the militant's opening of an office in Qatar.

In Idaho, hundreds of motorcyclists from clubs tied to helping the causes of veterans and prisoners-of-war escorted Bergdahl's father, Bob, to a local park, where he and his wife Jani spoke in a rare public appearance.

Bob Bergdahl pleaded with the Taliban to provide news of his son and then addressed him directly. "Bowe, my son, if you can hear me ... You are part of the peace process. You are part of ending the Afghan war," the father said.

'HAVE FAITH'

Bob Bergdahl spoke in Pashto to the Taliban, using their language to encourage them and "those who believe" to bring good to the world. He urged his son: "Have faith. Do good work. Have the patience that can only come from God."

Jani Bergdahl told her son he was not forgotten. "I love you, my son, as I have from the moment I heard of you."

In a statement earlier this month, Bergdahl said he and his wife had received a letter from their son that gave them hope that he is well despite his circumstances.

The trees on Hailey's main street have been decorated with yellow ribbons for four years to show that the town - sandwiched between a trout stream and the Sawtooth Mountains - has not forgotten its native son.

Banners that read "Bring Bowe home" and "We stand with Bowe" hung in storefronts and supporters handed out stickers and wristbands honoring the soldier.

"When something happens to one person in our community, it happens to everyone in our community," said Debbie O'Neill, a family friend who organized the rally. "None of us will rest until Bowe's safely home."

Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Jon Wisby spent much of Saturday shepherding a procession of bikers whose riding leathers were stamped with American flag and POW-MIA insignia.

Asked how his community had responded to news of the proposed talks between the United States and the Taliban, Wisby said, "There's definitely more of a possibility of Bowe coming home now than there was in the past. And this may be our last opportunity to get him home."

(Writing by Laura Zuckerman and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Steve Gorman and Christopher Wilson)

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