Red Cross workers freed in Afghanistan

KABUL (AFP) — Afghanistan’s Taliban have released four Red Cross workers, including two foreign nationals, captured near the capital four days ago, officials said Saturday.

The four — one from Myanmar, one from Macedonia and two Afghans — were seized in the province of Wardak on Wednesday while returning from a mission to release a German engineer and five Afghans captured by Taliban mid-July.

They were handed to an Afghan International Committee of the Red Cross worker in Wardak province some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Kabul, a spokesman for the provincial government told AFP.

“They are in good health,” said the spokesman, Abdul Udood Pashtunzar.

The ICRC would only confirm the release once the four had returned to Kabul.

“The unconditional release of our four colleagues is a great relief to us and their families,” said Franz Rauchenstein, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul, in a statement.

The statement made no reference to the Taliban, saying only the group was freed “after being seized by an armed group in Wardak province.”

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, had however confirmed earlier Saturday that his group had abducted the four “mistakenly”.

They would be freed without conditions because the Red Cross “has a good background in Afghanistan,” he had said.

“They must not be harmed by any side of the conflict,” the spokesman told AFP earlier on Friday.

The fugitive leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had an eye removed at a Red Cross hospital in the Pakistani city of Quetta after he was wounded fighting the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

The abduction followed a string of kidnappings of foreigners in Afghanistan, some claimed by Taliban insurgents and some blamed on criminals seeking ransom.

The ICRC has played a crucial role in facilitating the release of some of the Taliban’s other hostages, including 21 South Korean Christian aid workers captured mid-July and released in August.

The team that was captured last week had been trying to negotiate the freedom of German engineer Rudolf Blechschmidt, 62, kidnapped with five Afghans the day before the South Koreans.

They were taken with another German, who was killed days later after having a seizure. Officials have said efforts were under way to secure the release of this group, but there has been little movement in the case.

The Taliban has previously demanded the release of some of their men from Afghan jails in exchange for the hostages.

In a new kidnapping, a Bangladeshi national with a development organisation was abducted in Logar province, adjoining Wardak and Kabul provinces, on September 15.

He has not been released. The Taliban have not claimed involvement and his captors appear to be criminals after ransom.

The Taliban were in government until late 2001 and are today waging a bloody insurgency against the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

The insurgents said after the resolution of the six-week South Korean kidnapping drama it would capture more foreign nationals as abductions were an effective way to pressure the Afghan government and its international allies.

The rebels killed two of the South Korean aid workers after the government refused its demand to free certain Taliban prisoners.

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