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Sunday, 12 August, 2001, 15:44 GMT 16:44 UK
Taleban 'investigate' aid workers
Francesc Vendrell UN special envoy to Afghanistan
The UN's special envoy has arrived to plead for clemency
The Taleban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, says police are still investigating whether eight foreign aid workers in Afghanistan are guilty of promoting Christianity.

Mr Muttawakil's comments follow reports in the Taleban media which suggested the eight foreigners - who work for the agency Shelter Now - had been jailed and would be deported within days under a special law for foreigners.


After the completion of the investigations it will be clear how serious this crime was

Taleban foreign minister
Mr Muttawakil told reporters it was premature to say what kind of punishment the eight would receive, and the seriousness of the allegations against them still had to be assessed.

He also said that Western diplomats waiting for visas on the border would not be allowed to visit the detainees during the investigation.

There is still no news of the 16 detained Afghans who, if found guilty of renouncing Islam, would be covered by a separate decree which orders the death penalty.


I think people are getting a bit optimistic and this is unfair to the families

Australian diplomat
Later, Taleban media reported that UN representative Francesc Vendrell had discussed the aid workers' plight with Deputy Foreign Minister Mullah Abdul Jalil in talks in the southern city of Kandahar.

Before the meeting, Mr Vendrell said that he hoped the Taleban would show clemency to all 24 relief workers.

Confusion

Media reports said the foreigners were to be dealt with under a recent decree which orders three to 10 days in prison, followed by deportation.

Materials seized
The Taleban say they have evidence against the aid workers
That would have seen the four Germans, two Americans, and two Australians released soon.

But Mr Muttawakil said it was "premature" to mention punishment.

"After the completion of the investigations it will be clear how serious this crime was, how it had been planned and managed, what were the reasons for it and who was behind it," he said.

If the foreigners were found to be involved in a conspiracy to undermine the Islamic regime they could face a harsher sentence, he said.

Diplomats reacted with bewilderment to the foreign minister's statement.

"I would be delighted if they were expelled because it would mean they are safe and sound and able to communicate with their families," an Australian diplomat said.

"But this just adds more confusion. I think people are getting a bit optimistic and this is unfair to the families."

Children released

The Taleban released 65 boys accused of receiving Christian teaching from the foreign aid workers, imprisoning their fathers instead.

The official Taleban news agency said the children's fathers would be detained for several days as a punishment for failing to prevent their sons being exposed to Christian propaganda.

Shelter has defended its education programme, saying its staff only ever worked in the presence of several devout Muslim men and taught simple crafts, not Christian doctrine.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Kate Clark
"The Taleban foreign minister... said investigations were ongoing"
See also:

09 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban ease foreigner restrictions
06 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban crackdown on Christian relief
28 Jun 00 | South Asia
Annan: Kabul's grim future
03 Aug 98 | South Asia
Analysis: Who are the Taleban?
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