Wednesday, November 14, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan Eight imprisoned foreign aid workers appear to have been taken from their prison with fleeing Taliban forces in great haste, a visit to the squalid prison showed yesterday.
Suitcases, toiletries and drying laundry were left behind in the squalid, concrete prison where the eight, including two American women, had been held on charges of preaching Christianity in this Muslim nation.
Guards said the workers appeared to believe initially that they were being freed. Their Taliban captors hustled them into a dark blue pickup truck sometime Monday night.
“They were very happy, because they thought they would be released,” said one guard, Abdul Raouf. Another guard said they left at midnight.
Columns of Taliban troops headed south from Kabul overnight, abandoning the capital as fighters from the opposition Northern Alliance entered. The aid workers from Germany-based Shelter Now International two Americans, two Australians and four Germans have been detained in Kabul since Aug. 3, and Taliban judges had been trying them on proselytizing charges.
“Obviously to me this is rather devastating news,” John Mercer, the father of American aid worker Heather Mercer, 24, said from Islamabad, the capital of neighboring Pakistan. “We were hoping that the trial would have been concluded this week.”
Mr. Mercer said he had been told by the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad that the workers had been taken to Kandahar for their own safety.
The Taliban “felt that if [the workers] were left there that harm may come to them from some of the extremists” in the opposition, he told NBC’s “Today” show. Mr. Mercer said he would contact the embassy again today.
“The Taliban has continually assured us that they will be kept safe,” he said.
At the Kabul detention center, suitcases were sitting on steel bunk beds in a concrete block room that housed the six women the Americans, Miss Mercer and Dayna Curry; three Germans, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf; and Australian Diana Thomas.
Two socks left to dry on a hanger dangled from a top bunk. Outside in a sandy courtyard, a black sweater hung on a clothesline, still damp. There were only four beds in the room. Cushions were placed on the floor against the wall. The blankets were worn and tattered. One pink quilt had patches sewn on it.
The two men German George Taubmann and Australian Peter Bunch had a separate room.
In a steel cabinet in the women’s bedroom, there was shampoo, some apples, face cream, a small bag of medicine, hand soap and a hair brush. Nearby were language texts titled, “Learning to speak Afghan Pashtu.”
On the windowsill was a piece of paper with Heather Mercer’s name on it.
“What a friend I’ve found. We serve a God of miracles. I cry out. God is good all the time. My hope is in you Lord faithful one, so unchanging,” it read.
The workers had been kept in a home for wayward children until the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, when they were moved to the prison.
Their guards said they were sad to see the aid workers taken away.
“We liked them. They were good people. I think they will be OK because the Taliban had treated them very good,” said Mr. Raouf.
Baba Hafeez, an old man who looked to be about 70 years old, came to the detention center on his bicycle and identified himself as the cook.
“They got very good food and they were very healthy and very happy,” he said. “They always treated me very nicely and would give me money.”

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