KABUL, Afghanistan – Three weeks after arresting eight foreign aid workers on charges of preaching Christianity, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban said Saturday that it will finally allow them visitors.
The aid workers for the German-based Shelter Now International — two Americans, four Germans and two Australians — have not been seen by Western diplomats, relatives or aid workers since their arrests.
Diplomats had worried that the Taliban were intentionally isolating the workers to put psychological pressure on them. The Taliban earlier said they refused visits because the detained aid workers might stop cooperating with them if they saw the diplomats.
The Taliban-run Bakhtar News Agency made the announcement that Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil will now allow relatives, diplomats and the International Red Cross to visit the detained workers.
"The Red Cross spoke to me this morning and I told them: 'You can visit them anytime,"' Muttawakil told The Associated Press earlier Saturday in a telephone interview from southern Kandahar, the headquarters of the Islamic militia.
Muttawakil told Bakhtar he was allowing visits because the first phase of the Taliban's investigation has been completed. However, more inquiries are being made, he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, confirmed that it had been informed by the Taliban that the diplomats and relatives would be allowed to visit. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Afghanistan.
Red Cross officials in Kabul also confirmed that they had received permission from the Taliban to see the detained workers but the "modalities of the visit still have to be worked out," said spokesman Mario Musa.
Musa said the Red Cross will bring medical supplies, should the aid workers need them, and will relay messages to their families.
"But we will tell them to not give any messages that carry any political and ideological references," he said.
The American women, who are in their mid-20s, have been identified as Dana Curry and Heather Mercer. Their hometowns have not been released.
The two Americans were arrested on Aug. 3 and the rest on Aug. 5 when the Taliban raided the offices of Shelter Now International and confiscated Christian literature and materials translated into local languages, which the Taliban said were used to convert Muslims.
The Taliban espouse a harsh brand of fundamentalist Islam in the roughly 95 percent of Afghanistan under their control.
Sixteen Afghan staff workers for Shelter Now were arrested along with the eight foreigners. For an Afghan Muslim in Taliban-run Afghanistan, converting to Christianity is punishable by death. For a foreigner, the punishment is jail and expulsion.
Three diplomats from the United States, Australia and Germany recently spent a week in Kabul trying unsuccessfully to see their detained nationals.
Also, relatives of the two jailed American women arrived in neighboring Pakistan last week to try to get visas to Afghanistan. They wrote a letter to the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, asking for their children's freedom and permission to travel to Afghanistan.
They apologized on behalf of their children for any actions that might have offended the Islamic militia, said Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman at the Taliban Embassy in Pakistan. However, the letter did not mention anything about preaching Christianity.
Muttawakil earlier said the Taliban fear a larger conspiracy by Western aid organizations to spread Christianity in Afghanistan. The Taliban say they are investigating other international organizations, including the U.N. World Food Program.
International organizations have denied the accusations and say they would consider evacuating if more arrests are made.