By George Gedda
WASHINGTON – Eight foreign aid workers held by the Taliban militia since August for preaching Christianity in Afghanistan were freed today and were headed to Pakistan, a U.S. official said. Two of the eight are Americans.
A second U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were freed as a result of military action, but would give no details.
The disclosure came after the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi said he was confident the eight would be released soon.
Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, chairman of the Gadhafi Foundation for Charitable Organizations, told The Associated Press that his nongovernmental organization has been in touch with the Taliban for about two months in efforts to win their freedom.
“I believe that the Taliban will release these people in the near future,” he said in a statement to the AP made through Libya’s consulate in Vienna.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he hopes the reports are true but could not confirm them. He said U.S. officials had received no word from the Taliban as to the whereabouts of the Americans or on whether they will be released.
Although the United States accuses Libya of sponsoring terrorism, and recently extended sanctions against foreign companies suspected of doing business with the North African nation, Washington suspended sanctions against Libya itself in 1999.
The suspension came after Libya handed over two officials for trial on charges of planting the bomb that downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The attack killed 270 people, including 179 Americans.
The eight workers – four Germans, two Americans and two Australians – are employees of the Germany-based Christian organization Shelter Now International. They have been held since Aug. 3 on charges of trying to convert Muslims, a serious offense in Islamic Afghanistan.
Taliban Supreme Court judges had indefinitely postponed their trial, saying they feared anger at the United States over the airstrikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling in the case.
On Tuesday, the eight were moved from their cells in a detention center in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and were taken to the south by retreating Taliban forces.
Jimmy Seibert, senior pastor at the Texas church attended by the two Americans, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, said he had not received word on when the women would be released.
“Our hope is that they will be released in the next couple of days,” Seibert said today at a news conference at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas.
In Nashville, Tenn., Curry’s stepmother, Sue Fuller, told a reporter she had not heard officially of her stepdaughter’s impending release.
“I’m so excited that we’re going to see her soon and that she’s safe,” Fuller said. “I just think you know she trusted that God would take care of her and get her out of there safely, and it’s happened.”
Gadhafi’s son said his foundation made contact with the Taliban “with the aim of finding a solution for these people through third-party mediation,” and that the effort was bearing fruit “because of the good standing the foundation enjoys in this area.”
He said his group was working “to try to visit these people in order to convey letters and messages from them to their families,” adding: “As far as I know, they are all in good health.”
Joachim Jaeger, co-chairman of Shelter Now, told the AP today that the organization had not yet been contacted by Gadhafi’s son or his foundation.
But Jaeger said he welcomed any nonviolent assistance in winning the freedom of the eight. “We are thankful for everything that helps, of course, as long as it’s peaceful,” he said.
Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, played down a German newspaper report today suggesting that his government had information from foreign intelligence agencies indicating the eight were already on their way back to Kabul.
“I have no new information to report on the status of the jailed Shelter Now workers,” Fischer told reporters.
Libya is anxious to improve its standing with the West, and last year, it was involved in freeing all but one of 21 Western tourists and Asian workers kidnapped by rebels in the Philippines.
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