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Taliban move detained Western aid workers

detained aid worker
Dayna Curry is one of eight Western aid workers held in Afghanistan  

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- All eight Western aid workers held by Afghanistan's Taliban have been taken to the southern stronghold of Kandahar, according to the father of one of the workers.

The aid workers -- four Germans, two Americans and two Australians -- have been detained by the Taliban for more than three months. They were on trial in Kabul on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

John Mercer -- in Islamabad to secure the release one of the two Americans, his daughter, Heather, 24 -- said a reporter in Kabul told him that the detained workers were taken to Kandahar, which is the Taliban's spiritual headquarters.

Profiles: Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer 

"She visited the prison this morning and was told by the guard that between 6:30 last night and midnight, they were taken away with little notice, put in a van, and they said they were taking them to Kandahar," Mercer told CNN Tuesday. "I visited the Taliban embassy this morning and, while they did not come out and say 'yes they're in Kandahar,' they led me to believe that's where they were."

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Mercer is in Pakistan with Heather's mother, Deborah Oddy, and Nancy Cassell, mother of the other American aid worker, Dayna Curry. The three parents and Western officials have not seen the detained aid workers since September 1, on a visit approved by the Taliban.

The eight aid workers are members of the German-based Shelter Now International, a Christian charity that provided food and homes to the poor of Afghanistan. There has been no word on the fate of 16 Afghan Muslims who worked for the aid agency and were arrested at the same time.

Mercer said it is possible the Taliban were holding the workers for "some sort of leverage" against the United States, which is leading airstrikes on Taliban targets because the regime has been harboring Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization. But he said he hopes that is not the case.

"Possibly the Taliban want to show they have a viable government in Kandahar and that they can continue their trial there," he said. "That may be a little bit far out there, but it's still a possibility."

A senior Western diplomat said last week 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.

'It's very distressing'

A visibly worried Mercer said he was angry and disappointed the Taliban had moved his daughter to Kandahar. He told CNN he didn't know whether they had been moved for their own safety or to prove a point by the Taliban.

"It's very distressing. If I sit back and try to analyze it, you know, it is quite possible that the Taliban consider that they still have an effective government and they can still have a trial in Kandahar," Mercer said. "That's one way to look at it.

"The other is that maybe they are going to be pawns for some leverage in political negotiations. I still have hope that the Taliban have kept them safe for over 100 days now and they will continue to do so," Mercer said.

The last letter Mercer received from his daughter said she expressed "disappointment and dismay" that they had not heard from their Pakistani-based lawyer, Atif Ali Khan, in three weeks.

Despite the absence of their lawyer, Mercer said the letter, which was dated November 4, indicated the workers were being treated well.

"They were preparing a nice meal for Dayna Curry, whose birthday was on the 4th (of November)," Mercer said. "Over the past few days it had been relatively quiet in Kabul proper and I think emotionally they had all come to develop a sense of resignation that they were in for the long haul, that they were doing OK emotionally but they certainly did want to get out of there as soon as they could."

The trial of the eight aid workers had just begun when the U.S.-led military campaign was launched against the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden, blamed for the suicide-hijacking attacks in the United States that killed more than 4,000 people.

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

The U.S. government has listed the release of the eight as one of its demands of the Taliban, along with handing over bin Laden and his senior lieutenants in the al Qaeda network.

The Taliban chief justice had promised a fair trial but any punishment would ultimately be decided by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The punishment could range up to death sentences.

Omar was based in Kandahar until the U.S. air strikes began on October 7.


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