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Red Cross: 300 Taleban Prisoners Released This Week - 2002-01-05

The International Committee of the Red Cross says the new government of Afghanistan has begun releasing some of the Taleban prisoners captured during recent hostilities. The ICRC says it expects more prisoners to be freed now that the fighting appears to be essentially over.

The Red Cross said an initial group of more than 300 Taleban fighters were released this week. The prisoners had been held by commanders of the Afghan government in different parts of the country.

Red Cross spokeswoman Antonella Notari told VOA her organization was involved in the releases and, in some cases, gave the prisoners small amounts of money to help them return home. She says she expects more to be freed soon since, under international humanitarian law, prisoners must be released at the cessation of hostilities.

"The exception is if combatants or individuals who have taken up arms are accused of having committed a crime either during the conflict or prior to the conflict, they can be accused individually of having committed a crime, and in that case they continue to be detained and they are tried - and if found guilty, detained after the end of hostilities. But all other combatants who are not accused or found guilty of any crime must be released," she said.

Ms. Notari said Red Cross delegates so far have visited more than 4,000 prisoners in over 30 detention areas across Afghanistan. She says this includes those being held by U.S. forces at Kandahar airport.

"We have access to Taleban and al-Qaida fighters in custody of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. On the second of January, we had visited 100 and 96 of these fighters, both Taleban and al-Qaida fighters in U.S. custody at the airport facility in Kandahar. We do know, we have been informed by the U.S. forces that they do detain a few more prisoners elsewhere," she said.

Ms. Notari said the Red Cross is negotiating with U.S. authorities for permission to visit these prisoners as well. One is the American Taleban fighter, John Walker.

Ms. Notari says Red Cross delegates visited Mr. Walker on a couple of occasions when he was detained in Afghanistan. She notes he has since been moved to a ship off the coast of Pakistan and that the Red Cross is hoping to visit him there. She says all visits are carried out in private and under strict rules of confidentiality.