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Fate Of Western Detainees in Afghanistan A Mystery

Two days after the fall of Kabul, the fate of eight western aid workers who had been jailed by the ruling Taleban for spreading Christianity remains a mystery. U.S., German and Northern Alliance officials all said they know nothing about the whereabouts of the eight, all of whom were working for the German-based Shelter Now aid group.

John Mercer, the father of Heather Mercer, one of two American detainees, was told Tuesday the eight westerners were taken from Kabul by Taleban forces as they fled the Afghan capital.

"Why they were removed, I'd like to believe that it was primarily for their safety because they could not guarantee that if they pulled out and left them there," he said.

But no one inside Afghanistan has reported seeing the two Americans, four Germans and two Australians since Kabul changed hands.

Joe Jaeger, Shelter Now's German-based deputy director, has been in daily contact with the German government which is relying on information reaching its embassy in neighboring Pakistan. "Our people are not in Kabul so the prison is empty. We have no idea where they are right now," he said.

A German newspaper, quoting unnamed intelligence sources, reported the aid workers were heading back toward Kabul. But a spokesman for the Northern Alliance, which now controls the Afghan capital, said there has been no sign of them. U.S. officials, who have repeatedly called for their release, have nothing solid to report either. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher. "We have seen all these reports that they may somehow be freed and on their way back to Kabul. We would certainly hope they are true but at this point we do not have confirmation nor do we have any direct word from the Taleban," he said. And, Shelter Now said it has heard nothing about a reported offer by the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi who issued a statement in Vienna saying he's been in touch with the Taleban and expected the eight detainees to be released soon.

Last year, the Libyan government paid Islamic rebels holding hostages on the southern Philippine island of Jolo millions of dollars to secure their release.