Diplomats vow to continue efforts to visit prisoners in Afghanistan
KABUL, Aug 21 (AFP) - Western diplomats left Afghanistan in frustration Tuesday vowing to press on with efforts to visit eight foreigners detained by the Taliban militia for allegedly preaching Christianity.
The Pakistan-based envoys said they would continue to demand permission to visit the two Americans, two Australians and four Germans facing trial under the Islamic militia's puritanical brand of Sharia law.
"The soul purpose of our mission has been to visit our nationals and to verify their well-being which is normal practice in consular matters," they said in a joint statement read by US consul general David Donahue.
"Despite our repeated efforts consular access has been denied. "We return to Islamabad (Pakistan) to continue our efforts to obtain consular access and to work for the speedy release of our citizens."
The aid workers as well as 16 Afghan co-workers from German-based group Shelter Now were arrested between August 3 and 5 and have not been seen since.
Taliban officials have said the foreigners will be sent to trial and could face anything from expulsion to the death penalty, although the charges have not been explained.
The American, Australian and German envoys were given one-week visas which expired Tuesday after the Taliban authorities declined to extend them.
The Taliban, or movement of Islamic students, seized Kabul in 1996 and have imposed a radical interpretation of Islam in a bid to create a purist Mohammadan state.
Diplomatic visits were denied pending investigations into the possibility the aid workers were part of a "larger conspiracy" to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime in Kabul, Taliban officials said.
All aid groups in Afghanistan, which has been devastated by relentless drought and more than 20 years of civil war, were under suspicion, including some United Nations agencies.
"We will apply for visas as soon as we get back (to Pakistan) ... certainly we want to come back at the first available opportunity," said Australian consul Alastar Adams.
Adams said the diplomats were "very grateful and pleased" that the Taliban had passed on packages to the detainees including food from their families.
"We are hopeful that once the investigation is completed we will be able to see the detainees. We don't have an assurance on this but that is something that we will continue in our discussions and negotiations," he said.
"I think that (the trip) has been quite successful in the sense that we have established good relationships with our colleagues at the ministry of foreign affairs and we are hopeful to carry that relationship forward."
The Taliban has offered assurances that the detainees, being held in two detention centres in Kabul under tight guard, are being well cared for.
But the militia has refused to allow the two foreign men and six women to write letters to their families, raising concerns that psychological pressure is being used as part of the interrogations.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Friday appealed to the militia to allow consular access.
In a statement through his spokesman, Annan said he "regrets that, contrary to customary international law, consular access and legal representation for the detainees have been denied."
He said it "gives a signal that could have severe consequences on critical humanitarian assistance at a time when Afghans are suffering the combined effects of war, extreme poverty, massive displacement and severe drought."
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