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Western Diplomats Mission to Afghanistan Fails - 2001-08-21

Three Western diplomats have returned to Pakistan without seeing eight foreign aid workers who are being detained by Taleban rulers on charges of promoting Christianity.

During their week-long stay in Kabul, the diplomats from Germany, the United States, and Australia were repeatedly denied permission to see their detained nationals. The diplomats' requests for an extension in their visas were also turned down on Monday.

Australian diplomat Alastar Adams told reporters at the airport in Islamabad that they will continue efforts to gain consular access to the detainees and apply for new visas to visit Afghanistan. Mr. Adams says Taleban officials would not tell them when the investigation will be completed.

"They [the Taleban] say that it [the investigation] is more complexed than originally thought and as soon as they are completed we hope we will get advice and we will be following that through the [Taleban] embassy here in Islamabad," he said. "Well, all we can do from here at this time is to find out how the progress of the investigation is going and see access to them as soon as we possibly can. That is our primary focus."

The Taleban told the diplomats that meetings with prisoners under investigations are not allowed. It advised them to wait in neighboring Pakistan until it completes an investigation into the allegations that their nationals were involved in spreading Christianity.

Taleban authorities are holding four Germans, two Australians, and two Americans along with 16 local staff from a German-based aid group, Shelter Now. They have not been seen since they were arrested two weeks ago.

Australian representative Adams says Taleban officials have assured the diplomats that the foreign detainees are safe and well.

"We asked them [the Taleban] had they seen them in the first discussions, they had not. So they took the effort to go and check on them for us and face to face they said yes they are well and their health is good, said Mr. Adams. "So somebody has seen them yesterday [Monday] and that is really assuring."

The foreign aid workers, six women and two men, are accused of attempting to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity. The Taleban says it has seized Bibles and other Christian material from the detainees. It says their fate will be determined according to Islamic laws. The Taleban has not explained what punishment they might face. Under its interpretation of Islam, any Afghan Muslim converting to any other religion can expect the death penalty if arrested. Foreigners face a brief jail term and deportation if they are found guilty of breaking Taleban rules.

The only success of the mission to Afghanistan was the handing over of personal items to the Taleban for delivery to the prisoners. American diplomat David Donahue says this has encouraged them.

"We have received a receipt from the Taleban that was signed by the eight detainees that they have received the personal items that we gave to them," says Donahue. "We are pleased that they passed that on. We hope that they [the detainees] understand we are here and that people are trying to have access to them."

Meanwhile, Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil told a Pakistan-based Afghan news agency, Afghan Islamic Press that they are considering allowing officials from the International Red Cross to visit the detainees. The Taleban minister gave no indication when the meeting might take place.