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Commander Frees Captives, Then U.S. Ferries Them Out


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — U.S. special operations helicopters swept into Afghanistan early today to liberate eight Western relief workers--including two Americans--who had been jailed since August by the Taliban for preaching Christianity, the Pentagon said.

The workers were evacuated from a field about 50 miles from the Afghan capital, Kabul, after being freed from a Taliban jail by a local commander, according to officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross. The eight arrived here in the Pakistani capital this morning for a private reunion with waiting family members, U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark Wentworth said.

Among those on hand at the nearby Chaklala military airstrip were Americans John Mercer and Nancy Cassell, who had endured more than three months of uncertainty about the fate of their daughters, Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 30, respectively. The women had been working in Kabul for Shelter Now, a German-based relief agency, when they were arrested.

Pentagon officials said that all of the workers, who had faced possible death sentences from Taliban authorities, appeared to be in good condition. In addition to the two Americans, four Germans and two Australians who also worked for Shelter Now also had been held.

"I'm glad to report to the American people this chapter of the Afghan theater has ended in a positive and constructive way," said President Bush, who interrupted a dinner with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Wednesday night to speak to reporters.

Bush called the operation a "facilitated rescue" that was possible "thanks to help on the ground and the help of the U.S. military." He said he believed "rescue" was the appropriate word because instability and fighting in the region made any mission there dangerous.

According to the Swiss-based Red Cross, the aid workers were rescued from their Taliban jailers by an independent commander in the city of Ghazni. Spokesman Bernard Barrett said the commander contacted Red Cross personnel in Afghanistan, who then got in touch with U.S., German and Australian officials to arrange for their evacuation.

Georg Taubman, the director of Shelter Now, said the aid workers had been placed in the Ghazni jail by Taliban forces on Tuesday during the regime's flight from Kabul.

About 10 p.m. Tuesday, Taubman said, U.S. bombing began in the area. By 11 p.m., Taubman said, there was an uprising in the town against the Taliban and the imprisoned foreigners were released.

"People were cheering and hugging them," Taubman said.

Barrett said that after consulting with the local commander who rescued the aid workers, it was determined that "it was safer to keep them in Ghazni" until a rescue flight could be arranged. He said the Red Cross personnel met with the captives and contacted their respective embassies.

These accounts conflicted with earlier reports that the aid workers had been released by the Taliban. Taubman said the Taliban had given every indication of keeping the foreigners in custody.

Although the Taliban had made several attempts to use the aid workers as a negotiating tool, Bush said that he had rejected those overtures and that no deal had been made to facilitate their release.

Bush also said that the return of the aid workers wouldn't deter him from his principal purpose: to stamp out terrorism.

"We still want Al Qaeda, and we want to make sure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorist activity. That has yet to be accomplished," he said.

The mission to evacuate the relief workers began shortly before 1 a.m. today in Afghanistan, officials said. Three special operations helicopters landed near Ghazni, a town southwest of Kabul.

"This effort involved many people and several entities," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. "U.S. forces performed the extraction well, and the American people can be proud of them."

The good news came Wednesday evening back home for friends of Mercer and Curry.

"We know the girls have been released," said Sara Selke, a member of the Waco, Texas, church that both women attended. "Everybody just wants to be able to celebrate like we feel right now."

The two women's release came after several months of frantic efforts on the part of their families--including an offer by John Mercer to trade places with his daughter that was rejected by Taliban officials.

The plight of the aid workers--charged with proselytizing in a strict Muslim country--grew more dire after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the launch of a U.S.-led campaign against Afghanistan's rulers for harboring Osama bin Laden.

The eight workers were on trial in Kabul when the terrorist attacks occurred. Sixteen Afghans with ties to the Shelter Now group also had been held.

At the trial, the two Americans had reportedly admitted to playing a CD-ROM about Jesus and singing a song about God. But their parents have said the women, while devout Christians, were following the rules and not trying to convert Muslims.


Tempest reported from Islamabad and Garvey from Washington. Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Texas contributed to this report.

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