Foreign aid workers wait in Afghanistan prison

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Diplomats and the United Nations spent Wednesday lobbying for the release of eight jailed foreign aid workers, whom the ruling Taliban is investigating for allegedly preaching Christianity.

Officials from the US, German and Australian embassies in neighboring Pakistan were to arrive in Kabul on Thursday to press for the release of the detained Shelter Now International staff, the Taliban–run Bakhtar News Agency reported.

UN officials in Kabul spoke on Wednesday to members of the powerful Taliban Council of Ministers and urged them to provide information on the status of the aid workers, a UN official said on condition of anonymity.

The aid workers, who have been in prison since last Sunday, include two American women, four Germans and two Australians. Also imprisoned were 16 Afghan staff.

Late Wednesday, three of the detained aid workers, all women, returned briefly to their homes in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul. Neighbors said the three women were seen leaving with several suitcases and accompanied by several Taliban soldiers.

"I think maybe they are leaving Kabul," said one neighbor, who asked not to be identified by name. "All of them were wearing large black chadors (shawls)."

Because of the nighttime curfew in Kabul it was impossible to contact Taliban officials to find out whether the jailed foreign workers were allowed to return home to resupply for a protracted detention or to prepare to leave the Afghan capital.

Shelter Now International is part of a Germany–based Christian humanitarian group called Vision for Asia.

A spokesman for the group confirmed Wednesday that the workers had Bibles or other Christian literature, as the Taliban have charged, but insisted the materials were only for personal use.

"Certainly the people would have Bibles or Christian literature for their personal use, but not for converting Muslims to Christianity," Esteban Witzemann, spokesman for Shelter Now in Peshawar, Pakistan, told Bavarian state radio.

Witzemann said that despite several attempts, the organization had not been able to talk with the arrested workers.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's spokesman, Uwe Karsten–Heye, said the government "condemns this kind of persecution" on the basis of religious differences. The German officials declined to comment on the aid group's activities in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have shown some of the material confiscated from the Shelter Now International office which included films on Christianity in the local Dari language. The copies of the Bible they found were translations in the local Dari language as well as information about Dari–language Christian radio programs.

The Taliban, who espouse a strict brand of Islamic law, have forbidden proselytizing – a crime punishable by death.

Few people expect the Taliban to put the Westerners to death. Aid workers at other organizations in the Afghan capital say it is likely they will be expelled.

It was less clear how the Taliban will rule on the 16 Afghan staff, who were being held in a separate, undisclosed location.

On Tuesday, UN regional coordinator in Kabul, Elaine Duthoit, met with Taliban officials to push for a quick resolution. She said Taliban officials told her a review of the aid workers' case is expected to be concluded within a few days.

"Assurances were, however, received about their well being," Duthoit said.

The International Red Cross has asked the Taliban to allow them to visit the prison.

Salim Haqqani, an official in the Taliban's ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, said the Taliban want aid groups to work in Afghanistan but they must respect local laws.

"They should give our religion dignity and not show disrespect by teaching against it," he said.

The Taliban also have arrested 64 boys who received assistance from Shelter Now and who were engaged in aid work. They were being re–educated and would be released, Taliban officials said.