Taliban to allow aid workers a prison visit

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The Taliban authorities in Afghanistan appeared ready to let the International Committee of the Red Cross visit a group of international aid workers arrested earlier this month and held in prison since. They are accused of spreading Christianity.

Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban Foreign Minister, said a Red Cross delegation would be allowed to see the missing workers, who are from Australia, Germany and America, without delay. "We have no problem," the minister told the Reuters news agency by telephone. "They can see them any time."

In New York, meanwhile, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, warned the Taliban leadership that the harassment of foreign workers in Afghanistan was unacceptable. He added that the humanitarian position in the country had reached "alarming proportions" and promised to get worse.

Arrangements for the Red Cross to visit the eight foreigners, all of whom were working for the aid group Shelter Now International (SNI), were still murky, however. A spokesman for the Taliban said on Wednesday that there would be no access to the eight until an investigation into their alleged proselytising activities had been completed.

The parents of the two Americans in the group, both women, met Taliban representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, yesterday, to offer their apologies "if there is anything that our children have done".

They also handed over a letter written to the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, pleading that he release the foreigners and 16 Afghan staff attached to SNI. A spokesman for the Afghan embassy in the Pakistani capital confirmed this had been received. "They gave me a letter they had written to our supreme leader ... an appeal to see their children on compassionate grounds".

In a report on Afghanistan to the UN Security Council, Mr Annan said the UN should adopt a new approach to the country to try to encourage a long-term political settlement and to bring an end "to the crisis of legitimacy that has characterised Afghanistan since the 1970s". This might include a UN promise to help to fund a reconstruction plan once a settlement was reached.

The secretary general noted that the position in the country was worsening, that fighting had increased since May, and that "a combination of drought, conflict and human rights abuses have led to a new, more deadly level of crisis".

Mr Annan also said in his report that, with the Taliban militia in control of 95 per cent of the country, its leadership was continuing to refuse all contact with the opposition United Front to discuss a political settlement, which will also be considered by the UN General Assembly next month. The group has also resisted calls to hand over Osama bin Laden, a suspected terror mastermind wanted by America.

In Islamabad last night, diplomats from Australia, Germany and America were seeking to renew visas to return to Afghanistan in the hope that they might also be allowed to visit the detained aid workers. They had returned to Pakistan late on Tuesday after spending a week in Kabul trying in vain to see the group.