Eight aid workers rescued

Herald news services

After three harrowing months in captivity, two American women and six other foreign relief workers accused by the Taliban of preaching Christianity were reported safe in Pakistan today after being ferried out of the country by U.S. special forces helicopters.

Meanwhile, other U.S. special forces soldiers set up roadblocks on main north-south roads in a stepped up search for Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and reputed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Three rescue helicopters were dispatched to a field near the town of Ghazni, about 50 miles southwest of Kabul, to pick up the aid workers. They then were flown out of Afghanistan to Pakistan. A Pentagon statement said the workers “seem to be in good physical condition.”

The two Americans were Heather Mercer, 24, who grew up in Vienna, Va., and Dayna Curry, 29, of Thompson’s Station, Tenn. The two worked with Shelter Now International, a Christian relief agency that supported bakeries and other humanitarian efforts in Kabul.

Their extrication involved the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as a local Pashtun militia leader in Ghazni, but how the hostages came under his control remained a mystery this morning.

The helicopter flight ended a humanitarian subplot to the drama of the war against the Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. The eight had been imprisoned before the American bombing began last month, and their guards made sure to take them along even as the Taliban retreated from Kabul.

Mercer and Curry are evangelical Christians and members of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, a congregation that supports and encourages humanitarian activities. The two met at the Antioch church, where Mercer was a leader of the college ministry program. Curry, a social worker with the Waco school district, first went to Afghanistan two years ago. She returned in March with Mercer, a 1999 graduate of Baylor University.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, with Taliban forces in retreat from most cities, Air Force EC-130E “Commando Solo” flights increased radio broadcasts and leaflet drops offering a $25 million reward for bin Laden. U.S. intelligence operatives supplied weapons, ammunition, food and clothing to anti-Taliban Pashtun guerrillas in the south of the country, according to sources.

The Taliban’s swift demise caught U.S. war planners by surprise, Defense officials acknowledged Wednesday, and the often chaotic situation on roads leading to and from cities continued to hamper the effectiveness of airstrikes in the south.

Signaling a strategy in southern Afghanistan that more directly involves U.S. special forces in a ground combat role, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said special operations teams were stopping vehicles on major roads in a search for fleeing Taliban and al-Qaida members.

“They have been interdicting the main roads that connect the north from the south, to see what’s going on and to stop people that they think ought to be stopped,” Rumsfeld said during a visit to the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York City.

Asked what action might be taken against hostile forces stopped on the road, Rumsfeld said, “If they’re the kind you want to shoot, you shoot them.”

Rumsfeld stressed that finding bin Laden, Omar and other senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders is now the Pentagon’s top priority, but he said hard information is still lacking on how many of the Taliban have been located. “Some have been killed,” he said. “Others are hiding. And there are no particular reports of senior leadership having been located.”

Defense officials reported Wednesday that U.S. warplanes bombed several buildings in Kabul early Tuesday – just hours before rebel Northern Alliance forces entered the Afghan capital – that they believed to be meeting places for al-Qaida members. The officials said they believed some al-Qaida leaders may have been killed, but they did not know their identities or whether bin Laden was in the buildings at the time.

“What we think we know comes from some cell phone intercepts – some excited or angry exchanges between Taliban and al-Qaida members,” a senior military officer said.

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