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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 15:45 GMT
Aid workers taste freedom
Freed German aid workers
Georg Taubmann, Kati Jelinek, Margit Stebnar and Silke Duerkopf (left to right) during a news conference
Eight Western aid workers freed in Afghanistan have been talking about the three months they were held captive by the Taleban.

The eight - two Americans, two Australians and four Germans - were airlifted out of the country by three US special forces military helicopters from a field outside Ghazni, to the south-west of Kabul.

The foreign detainees
Heather Mercer, US
Dayna Curry, US
Margrit Stebnar, Germany
Georg Taubmann, Germany
Kati Jelinek, Germany
Silke Duerrkopf, Germany
Peter Bunch, Australia
Diana Thomas, Australia
One of the German aid workers, Georg Taubmann, said the airlift followed a dramatic rescue by Northern Alliance forces.

He said the Taleban had moved them from Kabul on Monday, just before it fell to Northern Alliance troops.

The plan had apparently been to take them to the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar, but they only got as far as Ghazni, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the capital.

They were locked up, first in a steel container in freezing conditions, and then in the local jail.

Aid worker in embassy
The aid workers were greeted by their families
But on Wednesday, Mr Taubmann said, there was an anti-Taleban uprising in Ghazni, and the eight workers were released by opposition fighters.

The opposition leader in the town informed the International Red Cross, who arranged for their evacuation by US special forces.

They were airlifted to Pakistan and arrived at Chaklala military air base near Islamabad early on Thursday morning.

They were driven to their embassies in a motorcade to meet relatives and officials.

    In other developments:

  • The UN Security Council adopts a resolution supporting efforts by the UN special representative for Afghanistan to form a broad-based government
  • Mullah Mohammed Omar tells the BBC he rejects cooperation with any new government
  • A thousand-strong force of Hazaras marches towards Kabul as competing groups stake their claims
  • First batch of UN aid reaches northern Afghan town of Hairatan
  • UK Prime Minister Tony Blair says the Taleban are in a state of "collapse" across Afghanistan
  • The UK Ministry of Defence says thousands of British troops are on 48-hour standby to be sent to Afghanistan
  • Pakistan says it hopes no single group will occupy Kabul and calls for a demilitarised zone there
  • Tens of thousands of refugees are reported to be returning to their homes in territory in northern Afghanistan newly captured by the opposition

The eight had been detained since 3 August by the Taleban on suspicion of preaching Christianity - a charge for which they could have faced the death penalty.

Sixteen Afghan workers arrested with them have also been freed according to United Nations assistant envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell.

He told the BBC they were released by Northern Alliance forces when they took Kabul from Taleban control.

Joy in Texas

US President George W Bush, at a news conference in Texas where he has been meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, called the release of the aid workers, "incredibly good news."

He said he was "thankful they are safe," and praised the US military operation.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a statement read to journalists that the aid workers were all "in good physical condition."

Mr Rumsfeld said: "This effort involved many people and several entities. US forces performed the extraction well and the American people can be proud of them."

Perilous position

The eight aid workers were all employed by the German Christian charity, Shelter Now International.

Material seized from Shelter Now office
The Taleban seized material from the aid workers' office
They had been the only foreign aid workers left inside Taleban-controlled Afghanistan.

Their position had become considerably more perilous following the start of US-led military action against the Taleban in the wake of the 11 September attacks.

On hearing the news, Nancy Cassell, mother of aid worker Dayna Curry, said she was relieved to hear of her daughter's safety.

"They're on their way here. I'm happy and I want to get ready to go where they come in," she said.

Washington had demanded that the Taleban release the eight unconditionally.

Taleban officials had said they would protect the Westerners in the event of any American attack.

The BBC's Caroline Thomsett
"They're just grateful to be going home"
Shelter Now International's Abdul Wasser Rahifi
"They decided to kill us, not the foreign workers, several times"
See also:

15 Nov 01 | South Asia
Aid worker tells of 'miracle' escape
29 Sep 01 | South Asia
Kabul aid workers trial delayed
13 Sep 01 | South Asia
Detained Afghan aid workers left behind
05 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban 'may execute' aid workers
01 Sep 01 | South Asia
Foreign volunteers leave Kabul
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