Workers' release heralds an aid-friendly Afghanistan

Eight foreign aid workers were delivered to Pakistan yesterday after nearly four months in jail.

After three and a half months in Taliban detention, charged with preaching Christianity, eight Western aid workers reached Pakistan early yesterday.

On his arrival in Islamabad, Georg Taubmann, the German leader of the Shelter Now International aid group in Kabul, described the harrowing final hours under Taliban control on Tuesday.

Taliban soldiers locked the aid workers in a freezing metal container truck for the long retreat to Kandahar. But after only a few hours' drive, the Taliban simply abandoned the aid workers, locking them in a jail cell in the city of Ghazni, where they were discovered by the local commanders of the Northern Alliance.

"Fortunately, we arrived at 9 o'clock just as the bombardment was starting, and at 10 o'clock there was an uprising, and at 11 o'clock the Masood people [Northern Alliance] came, and others broke into the prison and opened the doors," said a visibly relieved Mr. Taubmann, still sporting a long gray beard and wearing the salwar kameez that most Afghan men wear. "This is one of the biggest days of my life."

The release of the aid workers signals the end of more than five years of tense relations between the Taliban government and the foreign-aid groups who have worked for decades in Afghanistan to alleviate poverty and hunger in what is one of the world's poorest nations.

Aid agencies say that while the Shelter Now case involved a specific Islamic law banning religious conversions of Muslims, most aid groups had suffered minor and major harassments by the Taliban, perhaps with a desire to replace Western aid groups with Islamic ones.

The alliance commanders, who are lifting the Taliban rules that forbade women from working or girls from attending school, also indicate these aid groups may resume their activities unhindered.

The Shelter Now workers' release was brokered in the late hours of Tuesday night, when a local commander of the Northern Alliance found the four Germans, two Australians, and two Americans in a jail cell in the central city of Ghazni, about two hours south of Kabul.

Through the International Committee of the Red Cross, the commander arranged for a US Special Forces helicopter to pick up the aid workers.

"They are now calling their families, and they've been through a rough ordeal, so when they are strong enough, and prepared to talk with the public, they will do so," says Alastar Adams, an Australian diplomat who greeted the aid workers in Islamabad.

The Shelter Now saga began in August, when two young American aid workers for Shelter Now, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, were arrested coming out of the home of an Afghan family in Kabul. Under Taliban law, it was illegal for foreigners to enter an Afghan's home. That night, the eight foreigners and 16 of their employees were arrested. After a subsequent investigation turned up hundreds of Bibles and Christian-themed compact discs at Shelter Now's Kabul headquarters, many of them printed in the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashtu, the Taliban charged the Shelter Now workers with proselytizing, an offense punishable by death. The aid workers denied the allegations.

As the American, German, and Australian diplomats pleaded with the Taliban for leniency, or even release of the aid workers, the Taliban insisted on proceeding with a trial as a showcase for their brand of sharia, or Islamic law. But the trial never began. And three days after a pretrial hearing in Kabul, the World Trade Center was attacked, forcing German, Australian, and American diplomats and UN officials to leave Afghanistan.

Their greatest fear during the past month, says Heather Mercer's father, John, was not the Taliban, but the allance attacks on Kabul, often carried out by helicopter at night. The 16 Afghans who also worked for Shelter Now as teachers, nurses, gardeners, and cooks were freed when Northern Alliance forces entered Kabul Tuesday.

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