Taliban Offer to Free Aid Workers if U.S. Stops Threatening Military Action

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban offered Saturday to free eight international aid workers accused of spreading Christianity if the United States stops threatening military action, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency said.

The news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry statement from the Afghan capital, Kabul.

"If they stop issuing threats, we will take steps for the release of the eight foreigners," it quoted the ministry as saying.

The private news agency, based in Islamabad, has connections to the Taliban. Efforts by The Associated Press to contact the Taliban directly for confirmation were not immediately successful.

The eight aid workers are charged with trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, a serious crime in that devout Islamic nation, especially under the strict rule of the Taliban militia.

The ministry, in the statement, linked the aid workers' fate with that of the Afghan population, weary from years of war.

"On humanitarian grounds, if aid workers are important, so are the people of Afghanistan who have been hit by drought, cruel sanctions and are facing winter," the ministry said, according to the report.

"Because of American threats, people are being forced to flee their homes, along with their children and women and old people. Are their lives not important?"

The defendants include two Americans, four Germans and two Australians. All are employees of the German-based Christian organization Shelter Now International.

Sixteen Afghan staff of the same aid organization also were arrested.

The Taliban's chief justice, Noor Mohammed Saqib, has refused to discuss possible punishment if the aid workers are convicted. For Afghans, the mandatory penalty for preaching any religion other than Islam is death.

The Taliban are facing increasing pressure from the United States, which accuses them of sheltering Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the top suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Last week, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said he believed the Taliban's days are numbered. Late Friday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that if the Taliban do not give up bin Laden, they will become "a legitimate enemy" as well.

The Taliban, in the statement, said there was "no evidence against Osama which we can consider."