KABUL, Afghanistan — Three U.N. workers who were held hostage in Afghanistan met with President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday, looking tired but happy a day after their release from nearly four weeks of captivity.
Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan, Annetta Flanigan from Northern Ireland and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo held a private meeting with the Afghan leader in his palace in Kabul.
Smiling nervously, they later posed alongside Karzai for photographers, but made no comment at all on an ordeal which began and ended in still-murky circumstances.
Nayan, wearing a traditional green Afghan robe given to him by Karzai, declined to answer reporters’ shouted questions. All three left clutching a carpet also presented to them by the Afghan leader.
“We are very glad that by the grace of God our two sisters and a brother who were taken by the hostage-takers, by the criminals, were released safe and sound,” Karzai said. “The Afghan people were saddened and put in serious grief by this incident.”
The three, who helped organize Oct. 9 presidential elections which Karzai won, were expected to fly back Wednesday or Thursday to their home countries where friends and relatives await.
Questions over circumstances of release
Armed men seized the three on Oct. 28 in the first such abduction in Kabul since the Taliban fell in late 2001, suggesting anti-government rebels were adopting the tactics of Iraqi insurgents.
But Afghan officials insist they agreed to pay no ransom or free any jailed militants to secure their release. They have declined to identify the suspected kidnappers or to explain how the hostages came free.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said Wednesday that Afghan authorities’ “effective pursuit of the kidnappers ... led directly to the release” of the hostages.
American forces led one of two raids in the Kabul area on Monday, but Nelson said their overall role was “truly a limited one.”
The release prompted jubilation among fellow aid workers in Kabul’s 2,000-strong expatriate community.
Both the U.S. military and Karzai pointed to blanket condemnation of the kidnapping from religious and political leaders as well as ordinary Afghans to argue that the country is turning its back on violence.
“May Afghanistan be protected from getting such a bad name and retain its national pride,” Karzai said.
U.N., relief groups warn of danger
However, the United Nations and relief groups warned that much of the country remains dangerous for foreigners.
Tracts of Afghanistan are already off-limits to aid organizations because of a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency. Already this year, 24 aid workers have died in violence.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who spoke to the three released workers, said he was “profoundly relieved” their ordeal was over.
He said the world body would need to “strengthen the security of its staff in order to enable it to fulfill the organization’s mandate to further peace, reconstruction and democracy in Afghanistan.”
Paul Barker, the head of CARE International, one of the largest relief groups in Afghanistan, welcomed the peaceful outcome of the kidnapping but said it was unlikely to prompt aid groups to return to the troubled south and east of the country.
“Had it not ended this way, it would have been a big setback to a lot of reconstruction efforts here,” Barker said. “There are still plenty of serious incidents in all corners of the country.”
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