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Foreign Aid Workers Freed From Taliban Prison

The two Americans, two Australians and four Germans landed at Chakala air base outside the Pakistani capital Islamabad in the predawn hours Thursday morning. All of them appeared to be “in good physical condition,” a Pentagon statement said.

“I’m glad to report to the American people that this chapter of the Afghan theater has ended in a very positive and constructive way,” President Bush said at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The eight foreigners were arrested along with 16 Afghan aid workers on August 3rd and charged of spreading Christianity. All worked for the German-based Christian relief agency Shelter Now International.

Proselytizing is a serious crime, sometimes punishable by death, under the Taliban’s strict Islamic rule.

According to the Associated Press, U.N. officials in Islamabad said the 16 Afghan employees were also freed when the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces entered Kabul on Tuesday.

While the Pentagon labeled the action a “rescue,” two senior defense officials said the aid workers had been turned over peacefully by the Taliban.

The Taliban had held the foreign detainees in a Kabul detention center for over three months until Northern Alliance forces began to move toward the Afghan capital Monday. When the Taliban began retreating from Kabul Monday night and heading south toward Kandahar, they took the prisoners with them.

When they reached the neighboring province of Wardak, the Taliban “put us all into a steel [shipping] container,” said Georg Taubmann, one of the freed German aid workers. “It was terribly cold. They wanted to lock the container and leave us in there until the morning. We had no blankets. We were freezing the whole night through.”

On Tuesday morning, the detainees were taken out of the container and put in a jail in Ghazni, about 50 miles south of Kabul. Taubmann said the Ghazni prison was “a terrible place,” the worst he had seen in the 3 1/2 months he had been detained.

Soon after arriving at the Ghazni prison, the group heard bombing and artillery fire. An hour later, an anti-Taliban uprising erupted in the town.

At around 10 a.m., anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces flung open the prison doors and shouted “Azad! Azad!” or “Free! Free!”

The aid workers emerged to find a jubilant town just liberated from Taliban control.

“We walked into the city and the people came out of the houses and they hugged us and they greeted us,” said Taubmann. “They were all clapping. They didn’t know there were foreigners in the prison.”

But some local villagers expressed opposition to releasing the aid workers, believing they could be ransomed to their governments for large sums of money, rescuers told the aid workers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said a local military commander in Ghazni contacted the ICRC to try to arrange for the evacuation of the freed foreigners.

Speaking from Geneva, the ICRC said it relayed messages between an Afghan military leader of unknown loyalty and representatives from the U.S., Australian and German governments.

At about 2 a.m. Thursday morning, three U.S. Special Operations helicopters flew to a field near Ghazni to pick up the aid workers. The helicopters where unable to locate them at first, so the aid workers burned their clothing to attract the U.S. forces to the fire.

Ambassadors met their freed nationals at the airport in Pakistan. The American and Australian aid workers spent the day in seclusion in their respective embassies.

The freed aid workers include Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry; Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas; and Germans Taubmann, Katrin Jelinek, Magrit Stebner and Silke Durrkopf.

The Taliban Supreme Court had tried the aid workers in August, but the judges had postponed making a decision on the case because they feared their anger over U.S. airstrikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling.

In Australia, the brother of aid worker Diana Thomas credited the Taliban for their humane treatment of the detainees.

“If you look at the facts, since they’ve been captive, they’ve been looked after and they’ve been given everything that they have wanted,” Joseph Thomas told a Sydney radio station.

President Bush said he had feared the Taliban would put the aid workers “in a house and then, for whatever reason, would encourage that house to get bombed.”

Mr. Bush had rejected attempts by the Taliban to use the detainees as bargaining chips after the U.S. military strikes began Oct. 7.