Aid workers 'rescued' from Afghanistan
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than three months after being detained by the Taliban, eight Western aid workers were flown from Afghanistan to Pakistan by U.S. military helicopters, U.S. officials told CNN on Wednesday. All were reported in good condition.
The aid workers -- four Germans, two Americans and two Australians -- had been detained by the Taliban since early August on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
"I'm thankful they're safe, and I'm pleased with our military for conducting this operation," President Bush said from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Bush said the rescue had been "facilitated on the ground" and that the International Red Cross participated in some manner. "I am really proud of our armed forces, and I am also thankful for the folks in Afghanistan who helped with this rescue."
Bernard Barrett, a spokesman for the International Red Cross in Islamabad, Pakistan, said a local military commander in Ghazni, about 90 miles southwest of Kabul, contacted Red Cross officials in Afghanistan on Tuesday.
"(He) told them that he had rescued the eight SNI (Shelter Now International) people and asked for help to arrange for their transportation," Barrat said, explaining that the IRC facilitated communications between the governments of the detainees and the local military commander.
"With the evolution of the situation it was decided by the three governments and the SNI expatriates that the best option would be to airlift them directly out of Ghazni and this was agreed to by the local commander and that was carried out early this morning," he said.
The eight aid workers had been by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers since early August. They are members of Shelter Now International, a German relief agency that provided food and homes to the poor of Afghanistan.
There has been no word on the fate of 16 Afghan Muslims who worked for the aid agency and were arrested at the same time.
One U.S. official said the Taliban handed the eight aid workers over to a non-governmental organization, apparently the International Red Cross, which then contacted the U.S. military. The special forces were flown in. The forces did not encounter gunfire or hostile Taliban, the official said.
Bush said he had considered a previous rescue mission when the aid workers were detained in Kabul.
"I was deeply concerned for their safety," the president said. "I am glad to report to the American people that this chapter of the Afghan theater has ended in a very positive and constructive way."
The aid workers were taken out of Afghanistan around 4:40 p.m. ET (2:40 a.m. Thursday in Afghanistan) by three U.S. Special Operations helicopters.
A written statement issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the helicopters landed in a field near Ghazni.
"The detainees are now in Pakistan and appear to be in good condition," Rumsfeld said.
"This effort involved many people and several entities. U.S. forces performed the extraction well and the American people can be proud of them," he added in the statement.
As the news spread, relatives, friends and members of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas -- where the two Americans, Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, 24, are members -- celebrated by cheering, hugging and crying.
Reached by telephone in Islamabad, Mercer's father John Mercer told CNN he "doesn't know it's true until" he sees his daughter.
John Mercer has been staying in Pakistan, along with Curry's mother, Nancy Cassell. The parents have not seen the aid workers since September 1 on a visit approved by the Taliban.
Deborah Oddy, Mercer's mother, had just returned to the United States from Pakistan on Monday.
"I heard reports on the news first and frankly couldn't believe it, but now I have it confirmed, it's wonderful news," she said in Lewiston, New York
When asked if her daughter would continue her religious mission work, Oddy said she probably wouldn't for the near future.
"From letters we've received from Heather, I think she just needs some down time," she said.
In Nashville, Tennessee, Curry's stepfather, Jim Cassell, said this was the most exciting day of his life.
"I'm so ecstatic, I don't have the words to say," he said. "The prayer has really brought her into this situation (the release), and got her out of the hands and clutches of the Taliban, those evil people over there."
A day earlier, Bush said the United States was using its full intelligence capacity to make sure the aid workers "stay out of harm's way" during the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network. Bush's comments came as the Taliban reportedly moved the aid workers from the capital, Kabul, to the southern stronghold of Kandahar.
"It is up to the Taliban to protect them," Bush said Tuesday. "We expect them to do so."
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