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Taliban offers deal on aid workers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Afghanistan's ruling Taliban offered on Saturday to release eight detained international aid workers if the U.S. "stops its mass propaganda of military action against the Afghan people."

A statement from the Taliban's foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil released to CNN on Saturday said that the Taliban would release the aid workers if the United States withdraws its threat of military strikes against the Afghan people.

"If the United States is ready to ensure the Afghan people that their action is not against the Afghan people, the Taliban are ready to release the eight aid workers," the statement said.

The statement added that the U.S. can take action if it wishes but the Taliban is prepared for military strikes.

Transcript  of the Taliban statement
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Referring to the growing refugee crisis, the foreign ministry statement went on to say that the U.S should not "intimidate the people of Afghanistan" and should let them go home.

"The people should be allowed to return to their homes, they have been frightened and winter is coming and there is the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe."

Political pawns

Saturday's statement is the first time the Taliban have linked the aid workers, who face trial for promoting Christianity, to the demand that they specify the whereabouts of the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden.

Previously, the chief justice of the trial has said that the trial of the aid workers -- two Americans, two Australians and four Germans -- would be fair and the defendants would not be treated as political pawns.

The aid workers have been held by the Taliban in Kabul since early August on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

They are members of Shelter Now International, a German relief agency that provided food and homes to the poor of Afghanistan. There was no word on the fate of 16 Afghan Muslims who worked for the aid agency and were arrested at the same time.

The trial resumed last week, then the aid workers defense lawyer was granted up to 15 days to prepare the defense case.

Statement 'encouraging'

The Taliban statement was welcome news to John Mercer and Deborah Oddy, the parents of 24-year-old Heather Mercer who is one of the American women being held in Kabul.

"Anytime I hear the words release and detainees in the same sentence I become encouraged," Mercer said.

"I just hope that our government will also be encouraged and try to work a favorable solution for all sides in this matter."

Mercer is also hoping to be granted a visa to travel to Kabul
Mercer is also hoping to be granted a visa to travel to Kabul  

For Oddy, the statement is reason for anxious anticipation.

"It was great to hear that it was an official word from a highly placed official. We haven't heard too much from Mutawakil throughout this process, so to have a comment from him that there's a possibility of conviction and release, which is the really important key word here," Oddy said. "You know, we're delighted."

Humanitarian aid

Mercer said that officials at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad were discussing the statement.

For its part, the Bush administration has made it a point to distinguish between the Taliban regime and the people of Afghanistan since shortly after the September 11 terror attacks.

On Thursday, President Bush announced $320 million in humanitarian aid for the Afghan people.

"America will stand strong and will oppose the sponsors of terror. And America will stand strong and help those people who are hurt by those regimes," Bush said in an appearance at the State Department.

"There's no question that we're an angry people about what happened to our country. But in our anger we must never forget we're a compassionate people as well. We will fight evil, but in order to overcome evil, the great goodness of America must come forth and shine forth," he said.

"And one way to do so is to help the poor souls in Afghanistan."


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