Afghanistan's Taleban rulers have rejected any extension of visas for Western diplomats waiting in Kabul to meet with eight aid workers who are facing trial for allegedly preaching Christianity. The Taleban, which controls most of the country, maintains that no meetings are allowed with prisoners under investigation.
An Afghan news agency, Afghan Islamic Press, says that the diplomats from Germany, Australia, and the United States applied to the Taleban foreign ministry on Saturday to extend their visas, but were refused.
The three diplomats arrived in Kabul earlier in the week to try to visit their detained nationals. They can remain in Afghanistan until Tuesday, when their visas expire. The diplomats say they have instructions from their governments to wait until the final hour and continue to press the Taleban to grant them an extension. Taleban officials have repeatedly denied them permission to see the foreign aid workers.
The Taleban has told the diplomats to return to neighboring Pakistan and wait until an investigation into the charges against the detainees is complete. Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil is quoted as saying the diplomats should exercise patience and let Taleban officials complete the investigation. He says the Taleban fails to understand why the diplomats continue to insist on meeting with the detained aid workers.
Mr. Mutawakil says the visas issued to the diplomats were for the specific purpose of holding talks on the issue with the Taleban officials. He says that mission is complete and there is no need to extend their visas now.
The Taleban is holding four Germans, two Australians, and two Americans along with 16 local staff from a German-based aid group, Shelter Now. It has accused the aid workers of trying to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity. Authorities say they have seized Bibles and other materials written in local languages.
The Taleban says the fate of the foreign aid workers will be determined according to Islamic laws. It has not said what punishment they might face. Under the Taleban's strict interpretation of Islamic law, any Afghan Muslim converting to any other religion could be sentenced to death.
On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned the Taleban that it is in violation of international law for denying legal or consular access to the foreign aid workers. He has also said the detention of aid workers could have "severe consequences" on humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile Taleban Foreign Minister Mutawakil is quoted as saying that proselytizing is a serious matter and the Shelter Now workers have hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Afghans and Muslims elsewhere. He said their conduct amounts to, in his words, "a cruel injustice against humanity."