Fleeing Taliban took captive aid workers with them

War on terrorism: Hostages
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The families of eight foreign aid workers detained in Kabul had their hopes of an early reunion dashed as it became clear the Taliban had taken the prisoners with them when they fled the city.

Reports from Kabul suggest the aid workers had expected to be released on Monday night. Now diplomats are referring to them as "hostages".

A prison guard said the Taliban loaded the four Germans, two Americans and two Australians accused of preaching Christianity into a four-wheel drive vehicle at about midnight. "They said they were going to Kandahar," Ajmal Mir said.

John Mercer, the father of an American prisoner, said after talks with Taliban representatives at their embassy in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad: "This is a real mess. It's very distressing."

He said Taliban representatives had confirmed that the aid workers had been taken to Kandahar, and he feared they would now be used for "political leverage". A German diplomat said the eight foreigners were now "clearly hostages" of the Taliban.

The foreigners, and 16 Afghan workers, were arrested at the beginning of August for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The workers of the German-based Shelter Now International denied the charge. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

The trial, which was halted when the US attacks on Afghanistan began, has now been postponed indefinitely, the Taliban announced on Monday. The fate of the Afghan workers is unknown.

Relatives of the foreigners have not been allowed to see them since 11 September. On Monday, the German embassy received letters from the four Germans saying they were being treated well. Mr Mercer said a letter he had just received from his 24-year-old daughter, Heather, described the mood among the detainees as "emotionally strong" in spite of bombs falling near their prison. Two weeks previously, they had celebrated the 30th birthday of one of the American aid workers, Dayna Curry. Ms Curry's mother, like Mr Mercer, has been waiting in Pakistan for word of her daughter.

Toiletries were found in the room where the six female aid workers were kept, indicating an abrupt departure from the detention centre in Kabul.

The move to Kandahar could imply that the Taliban want to go ahead with the trial and prove to the world that they are still a viable government, Mr Mercer said. The Taliban chief justice has reiterated that any punishment, including execution, would ultimately be decided by the supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is thought to be in Kandahar.