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Taleban Denies Visit To Detained Aid Workers - 2001-08-07

Afghanistan's Taleban rulers have turned down a U.N. request to visit eight Western aid workers, who are being held for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. The Taleban says the relief workers have insulted its religion and would face punishment under the country's Islamic law.

The Taleban detained the eight foreign relief workers last week along with 16 local staff members of the Christian relief group Shelter Now. The Taleban has accused them of preaching Christianity among Afghan Muslims.

The relief agency's office in Kabul has been sealed and a school it was running has been closed.

Diplomatic efforts have intensified to secure release of the aid workers. So far Taleban officials have not responded to U.S., Australian, German, and the U.N. requests to visit the detainees, who are being held in religious police custody in Kabul.

The foreigners include two Americans, two Australians and four Germans. The Taleban says it is investigating and the aid workers fate would be determined according to Islamic law.

Antonio Donini senior U.N. official in neighboring Pakistan said, "We have met with Taleban officials in Kabul today and expressed our concern over the arrest of the SNI (Shelter Now International) staff. We were given to understand that the case is under review and that it will be completed within a few days," Mr. Donini said. "We also asked whether it will be possible to see the detainees, but we were not given a positive answer."

A senior Taleban leader, Mohammad Salim Haqqani, told a news conference in Kabul there is strong evidence the Western aid workers were involved in preaching Christianity. He showed reporters computer discs containing the story of the life of Christ in local Dari and Pashto languages as part of evidence collected from the aid officials.

The Taleban is known for enforcing a strict version of Islamic laws in Afghanistan. It says any Afghan Muslim converting to Christianity, Judaism or any other religion can expect the death penalty if arrested. Those who are found guilty of selling material about these religions or books criticizing Islam will face five years in prison.