Libya linked with reported release of Taleban’s western ‘hostages’

Allan Hall In Berlin

EIGHT western aid workers held by the Taleban on charges of spreading Christianity could have been released unexpectedly.

If true, it seems likely that Libya played a hand in gaining their freedom.

The irony of this will not be lost on Germany: earlier this week a German court judge ruled Libya was behind the terrorist bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin in 1986 in which two US servicemen and a Turkish woman were killed.

The men and women, four of them German, were allegedly set free after being moved to the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar where it was widely assumed they had become hostages of war instead of merely prisoners. A German newspaper reported the release yesterday but the German government has refused to comment.

The two Americans, two Australians and four Germans - members of the German-based Christian charity Shelter Now International - could have faced the death penalty if the US air onslaught coupled with the Northern Alliance ground assault had not cut short their captors’ grip on power.

Just last week a senior western diplomat said the eight were being constantly moved between different locations in Kabul, possibly to prevent a commando raid to rescue them, and were now clearly hostages.

On Tuesday it became clear that the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, has had a hand in trying to secure their freedom. His son arrived in Berlin last week announcing Libya’s efforts to free the captives.

Seif el-Islam Gaddafi, chairman of the Gaddafi Foundation for Charitable Organisations, said his non-governmental organisation had been in touch with the Taleban for about two months. Col Gaddafi’s son said the effort was bearing fruit "because of the good standing the foundation enjoys in this area".

"I believe that the Taleban will release these people in the near future," he said.

Last year, Libya was involved in freeing all but one of 21 western tourists and Asian workers kidnapped by the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf rebels. Washington suspended sanctions against Libya in 1999 in return for the handing over of the Lockerbie bombing suspects.

The trial of the eight aid workers had just begun when the US-led military campaign was launched against the Taleban for sheltering Osama bin Laden .

The Taleban had rejected earlier appeals by family and governments to release the aid workers, who all denied trying to convert Afghans from Islam.

The foreign detainees are Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, Americans Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, and Germans Georg Taubmann, Katrin Jelinek, Margrit Stebner and Silke Durrkopf