Detained aid workers freed

No place like home

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, held in Afghanistan by the Taliban militia for three months for preaching Christianity were airlifted to freedom Wednesday by U.S. military helicopters, the Pentagon said.

Three U.S. special forces helicopters picked up the aid workers in a field near Ghanzi, about 50 miles southwest of Kabul, at about 4:40 p.m. EST, Pentagon officials said.

The aid workers were flown to Pakistan, and appear to be in good health, officials said.

It was not clear whether the Taliban released the aid workers or they escaped or were freed by U.S. forces.

''I'm thankful they're safe, and I'm pleased with our military for conducting this operation,'' President Bush said at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush had rejected several attempts by the Taliban to use the aid workers as bargaining chips.

Bush said the Red Cross and other ''people on the ground facilitated'' U.S. troops' ability to rescue the aid workers, but the president wouldn't say whether the people were U.S.-backed anti-Taliban groups or others.

The president said he had been worried that the Taliban might put the aid workers in a house that might be bombed accidentally, and said the U.S. military had been working on plans for a secret rescue if needed.

''We thought of different ways to extricate them from the prison they were in,'' Bush said without elaborating.

Bush said the rescue of the aid workers ended one chapter in the five-week-old U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, but the mission remained to topple the Taliban -- already run out of the north by rebels -- and rooting out Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

''We still want al-Qaida and want to make sure Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorist activity,'' Bush said. ''This could take a while and I'm patient and ... our military and our troops on the ground are on the hunt until we can accomplish our objectives.''

In Islamabad, Nancy Cassell, the mother of U.S. aid worker Dayna Curry, said before dawn Thursday local time: ''They're on their way here. I'm happy and I want to get ready to go where they come in.''

The ruling militia were driven out of Kabul on Tuesday by U.S.-backed rebel forces. The Taliban headed south, taking the aid workers with them. They had been held in cells in a detention center in the Afghan capital.

Jimmy Seibert, senior pastor at the Texas church attended by the two Americans, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, said Wednesday he had not received word that the women had been released.

In Nashville, Tenn., Curry's stepmother, Sue Fuller, told a reporter she was elated at her stepdaughter's release.

''I'm so excited that we're going to see her soon and that she's safe,'' Fuller said. ''I just think you know she trusted that God would take care of her and get her out of there safely, and it's happened.''

The eight workers -- four Germans, two Americans and two Australians -- are employees of the Germany-based Christian organization Shelter Now International. They have been held since Aug. 3 on charges of trying to convert Muslims, which was a serious offense under the Taliban's harsh Islamic rule.

Taliban Supreme Court judges had indefinitely postponed their trial, saying they feared their anger at the United States over the airstrikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling in the case.

Earlier Wednesday, the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi said he was confident the eight would be released soon.

Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, chairman of the Gadhafi Foundation for Charitable Organizations, told The Associated Press that his nongovernmental organization has been in touch with the Taliban for about two months in efforts to win their freedom.

''I believe that the Taliban will release these people in the near future,'' he said in a statement to the AP made through Libya's consulate in Vienna.

Although the United States accuses Libya of sponsoring terrorism, and recently extended sanctions against foreign companies suspected of doing business with the North African nation, Washington suspended sanctions against Libya itself in 1999.

The suspension came after Libya handed over two officials for trial on charges of planting the bomb that downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

The attack killed 270 people, including 179 Americans.

Gadhafi's son said his foundation made contact with the Taliban ''with the aim of finding a solution for these people through third-party mediation,'' and that the effort was bearing fruit ''because of the good standing the foundation enjoys in this area.''

Libya is anxious to improve its standing with the West, and last year, it was involved in freeing all but one of 21 Western tourists and Asian workers kidnapped by rebels in the Philippines.

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