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30 Leave Afghanistan in First Release of Pakistani Detainees

April 26, 2002|From Times Wire Services

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan interim government Thursday freed the first of hundreds of Pakistani prisoners who were locked away for months in cramped, squalid cells because they came to help the deposed Taliban regime fight a "holy war" against the United States.

The first 30 Pakistanis--elderly men with white beards and younger men who were wounded--filed into a Pakistani military plane for the flight home, guarded by heavily armed soldiers.

Pakistan said it would detain the men until authorities could verify that they were citizens and determine whether they committed any serious crimes. At the very least, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan, the men crossed the border without proper documents. Khan described the release as a humanitarian effort on behalf of innocent or misled people.

The prisoner release was the beginning of a mass return of Pakistanis detained in Afghanistan late last year when the opposition Northern Alliance, backed by a U.S.-led air campaign, drove the Taliban regime from power.

Neither Afghan nor Pakistani officials had a count of how many Pakistanis were being held in Afghan jails, other than to say they numbered in the hundreds. But an official in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said 695 prisoners would be freed by Monday.

Conditions in Afghan prisons are often atrocious. At Sheberghan prison in the north, where some of those released Thursday had been held, International Committee of the Red Cross began an emergency feeding program last weekend because some prisoners were on the verge of starvation.

The 2,700 prisoners at Sheberghan were packed so tightly into cells that they had to sleep in shifts. Authorities have begun to move some prisoners into tents.

Interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai agreed to the release after a request from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Shazada Masood, advisor to the Afghan minister of tribal and border affairs, said none of those released appeared to have links to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, which the U.S. blames for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"They are old men who were fighting with the Taliban. They are not convicted of any exact crime," he said. "They were simply deceived by the Taliban."

Meanwhile, the United Nations' refugee agency said about 353,000 Afghan refugees have returned home since a repatriation program began about two months ago.

Of those, 327,000 returned from Pakistan, 17,000 from Iran, more than 8,900 from Tajikistan and 18 from Turkmenistan, said the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Some refugees have been living in exile since the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

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