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Western Aid Workers Leave Afghanistan - 2001-11-15

Eight westerners who work for the Christian-based aid group, Shelter Now are free in Pakistan after being jailed by the Taleban for more than three months. The eight foreigners and 16 Afghans were jailed on charges of trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. The 16 Afghans arrested with the eight foreigners, were freed several days ago after the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul.

U.S. Special Forces brought the eight, two Americans, two Australians and four Germans to safety in Pakistan early Thursday.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross played a key role in the transfer of the eight to coalition forces. ICRC spokesman Bernerd Barratt says conditions in the region made the operation very delicate. "Conditions in many rural areas of Afghanistan are very fluid," he said. "Our primary concern was to ensure their safety. Above all we did not want to focus any attention on this area until the operation was successfully completed."

The eight foreigners, along with 16 Afghans were jailed in early August by the Taleban on charges of attempting to convert Afghans to Christianity, considered a serious crime under Taleban law.

While Shelter Now officials denied the charges, Taleban authorities showed foreign reporters stacks of bibles, videotapes and other paraphernalia translated into Dari and Pashto, which they said indicated the Shelter Now workers were guilty.

Speaking to VOA in Islamabad on Thursday, Atif Ali, the Pakistani lawyer assigned to the case, says he is surprised and delighted that his clients are free. "Well I am very happy to hear this news and I hope to meet them soon," he said. "It is really great to have them back here safe and sound. The situation was very volatile. It is a very good development."

Upon their arrival in Islamabad, the Shelter Now workers were rushed to their respective embassies. They are said to be in good health but exhausted. Speaking to reporters in Islamabad, Georg Taubman the German head of the Shelter Now team says he and his colleagues were elated on Monday night when the Taleban began pulling out of Kabul. But, he says, that elation soon turned to despair, when it became apparent the Taleban would be taking the eight along with them. "Just before Kabul fell we were so excited to be getting out," he said. "We heard the troops coming in and then the Taleban came in and took us away. They put us in a vehicle and wanted to take us to Kandahar and we knew if we ended up in Kandahar we would probably not survive there."

Mr. Taubman says the Taleban stopped in the town of Ghazni where he and his colleagues were locked in a steel container where they spent a freezing night. At dawn they were transferred to the town jail.

But, he says, during the day on Tuesday Taleban control in Ghazni collapsed and he and his colleagues were freed by the Northern Alliance. He says it was a day he will never forget. "We got out of the prison and we walked through the city," said Georg Taubman. "People came out of their houses and hugged us and greeted us. They were clapping. They did not know there were foreigners in the prison. We were a big attraction. Everybody came out of their houses. They were celebrating and waving at us, it was like a big celebration for all these people. I think this was one of the biggest days in my life."

The eight were soon put under the protection of a local commander who contacted ICRC officials.

Late Wednesday night the eight were taken to a field near Ghazni where they boarded a U.S. Special Forces helicopter for their flight to safety.