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Taleban Violating International Norms - State Dept. - 2001-08-21

The United States says it will continue pressing Afghanistan's ruling Taleban to give consular access to eight foreign aid workers - two Americans, two Australians and four Germans - being held in Kabul for allegedly promoting Christianity. The Afghan authorities refused to extend the visas of Western diplomats trying to visit the detained workers, six of them women.

The State Department says the Taleban is violating international norms by refusing to allow consular visits to the aid workers. And it says it will continue to press for access, even though the Western diplomats, who have been in Kabul to pursue the matter, are now obliged to leave.

Diplomats from the United States, Australia and Germany spent a frustrating week in Kabul, seeking permission to see the detainees from the German-based relief group Shelter Now, who were detained earlier this month for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Though the three diplomats are to return to Pakistan Tuesday because their visas were not extended, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker says they will continue to press Taleban's delegates in the Pakistani capital for permission to see the detainees.

"Consular access is what we were after," said Mr. Reeker. "That was the sole purpose of the missions of our officials in going to Kabul, and it's a normal procedure in all consular matters. But that consular access has continued to be denied. And as our officials go back to Islamabad, as they said there, they're going to return, and continue our efforts. We're going to continue talking to the Taleban officials, who are there in Islamabad, so that we can gain consular access, and to work for the speedy release of our citizens."

Though none of the Western countries involved has officially recognized the Taleban administration -- or has consular agreements with it -- Mr. Reeker says the Kabul authorities have "certainly" contravened accepted diplomatic norms by refusing access to the detainees.

Other officials here say the Taleban's handling of the affair thus far will in no way enhance its efforts to get broader international recognition.

Taleban officials repeatedly assured the visiting diplomats that the detainees were safe and well, and they accepted letters and personal items, which they said would be passed on to the prisoners.

But they said there could be no diplomatic visits, while investigations of the accused were still underway.

The eight foreigners, along with 16 local employees also facing charges, were arrested August 5 for alleged proselytizing.

Spokesmen for "Shelter Now" insist that while the group is Christian-based, its staffers in Afghanistan were involved only in charitable activity.

The United States has had a tense relationship with the Taleban, which it has also condemned for -- among other things -- sheltering alleged terrorist mastermind Osama Bin-Laden.