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Taliban Denies Diplomats Access Taliban Withholds Visits with Eight Foreign Detainees

By Pamela Constable
THE WASHINGTON POST -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Eight signatures on a prison receipt for packages from home were the only evidence American and European diplomats brought back Tuesday from Afghanistan that eight detained foreign aid workers, including two American women, were alive and in good health.

The three diplomats were not allowed to see the detainees after waiting nearly a week in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where the aid workers have been held since Aug. 5 on suspicion of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. Under the laws of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement, converting Muslims is a crime punishable by death, although foreigners may face only expulsion.

“We are very pleased that they passed on the personal items and that we received the signed receipts,” David Donahue, the American consul in Pakistan, said Tuesday after flying here from Kabul. “We will continue to try to get access to our detainees, and we hope they will be released soon. It is the beginning of a process.”

Alistair Adams, Australia’s consul in Pakistan, said the signed receipts were “the next best thing” to visiting the detainees, who include two Australians and four Germans. He also said officials from the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry “took the effort to check on them face to face” in prison and reported that “their health is good. It is an encouraging sign.”

Adams said, however, that the diplomats were unable to determine whether the workers have been charged and what the punishment might be. Taliban authorities “do not seem clear about that,” he said.

Meanwhile, two parents of the detained American women, who have been identified only as Dana Curry and Heather Mercer, called on the Taliban’s embassy here Tuesday, seeking permission to visit their daughters and pleading for their safe release.

“I am here as a father, and I am very concerned about my daughter,” one parent, a middle-aged American man, told an Afghan diplomat. “I apologize for any wrongdoing they may have done. My daughter told me she loved the Afghan people and wanted to live and work with them. I will be grateful to you forever if they are brought back to us safely.”

The man, who was accompanied by an American woman, declined to be interviewed by a reporter who was visiting the embassy, and neither could immediately be identified. American and Afghan diplomats would not reveal any details about the families, but Taliban diplomats said they reassured the parents that the women were safe and promised to pass on their requests to visit Kabul.

The eight foreign workers were arrested in Kabul along with 16 Afghans associated with Shelter Now International, a German-based Christian aid organization. Its Kabul offices were closed after Taliban authorities said they raided a home that some of the workers were visiting and discovered Christian books, tapes and videos in Pashto and Dari, two languages spoken in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, which seized Kabul in 1996 and now controls most of Afghanistan, is attempting to create what it calls a pure Islamic state, and it subjects all Afghans to harsh enforcement of laws against what it views as immoral or un-Islamic behavior. In March, the Taliban shocked the world by demolishing two historic statues of Buddha carved into a cliff centuries ago.