Diplomats draw blank over access to Taliban-held foreigners
KABUL, Aug 7 (AFP) - Diplomats have met a wall of silence in their efforts to gain access to two Americans, two Australians and four Germans detained in Afghanistan by the Taliban, officials said Tuesday.
The six women and two men were among 24 people, staff of the German chapter of US-based aid group Shelter Now International (SNI), rounded up over the weekend for allegedly preaching Christianity, a capital crime in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
They have been split into groups of men and women and denied visits from friends, journalists and colleagues in the fundamentalist Islamic state, but Taliban officials say they are being treated well.
US diplomats in neighbouring Pakistan requested consular access from the Taliban embassy after Washington expressed concern for the two American aid workers held in Kabul.
"It's an internationally recognised right in the case of arrests of foreigners in other countries," a US embassy spokesman told AFP.
But he said there had been no response from the Taliban, who control most of Afghanistan.
The United States, like most countries, does not recognise the Taliban regime or maintain an embassy in Kabul, and for security reasons does not normally allow its officials to enter the country.
According to a Taliban radio announcement late Monday, the detained foreigners include Americans Dana Curry and another woman whose name was inaudible along with Germans George Taubmann, Silke Duerrkopf, Margrit Stebner and Kati Jelinek.
The Australian foreign ministry said Dianna Thomas and Peter Bunch, both from Perth, were also being held. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer demanded immediate consular access.
"We obviously are going to find it quite difficult. But these are people who by our standards are just hard-working and well-meaning people," he said in Canberra.
"The challenge for us will be to see that we can get them out."
A German embassy spokesman in Pakistan said some of the detainees' families had left Afghanistan of their own accord in the past 24 hours but otherwise there had been no change in the situation.
"We have been in contact with the Taliban authorities and pressed them to release the NGO (non-governmental organisation) workers immediately," he said, adding that a "crisis centre" had been set up in Berlin.
The international community's refusal to recognise the regime has been a major obstacle to cooperation on a range of issues from human rights to the preservation of pre-Islamic cultural heritage.
Taliban religious police have said the foreigners will be punished according to Sharia law but have not indicated when or if they would be tried in court or the exact charges against them.
The Taliban's puritanical blend of ethnic Pashtun and Islamic law is unique in the Muslim world.
Among other things, it allows for the stoning to death of adulterers and the execution of people who try to convert Afghan Muslims to other faiths.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had asked the Taliban for permission to visit the foreign aid workers, also without response so far.
Shelter Now's offices have been sealed and an SNI-run school for some 65 children has been closed. The children have been sent to a juvenile reform centre where the female detainees are being held.
The aid group has links with evangelical organisations and its German director in Afghanistan, Taubmann, has previously run foul of authorities in Pakistan for religious reasons, diplomats said.
The United Nations has expressed concern that the arrests are part of a growing pattern of Taliban intimidation of foreign aid workers despite a humanitarian crisis caused by civil war and severe drought.
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