Aid Workers' Families Worried

The families of two Australian aid workers detained in Afghanistan on charges of preaching Christianity were devastated by news of the U.S.-led attacks on the country, family and friends said Monday.

Australians Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch, along with two Americans and four Germans, remain in the custody of Afghanistan's Taliban regime for allegedly trying to convert people to Christianity in the strictly Islamic nation.

In Luxembourg, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer demanded the workers' immediate and unconditional release even as his deputy, Juergen Chrobog, headed to Islamabad for talks with Pakistani officials.

"We want them back healthy and safe," Fischer said at a European Union meeting.

"We're trying to increase the pressure on the Taliban to free them," Guenter Pleuger, another German foreign ministry official, said in Berlin, without giving details.

They are being held in the capital, Kabul, one of many cities targeted by U.S. and British air strikes late Sunday. President Bush said the strikes were in retaliation for the Taliban's refusal to handover chief terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

Pleuger said the aid workers had been contacted overnight by their Pakistani lawyer who said that they appeared to be well. The German-based Christian organization Shelter Now said it had no information on the eight since the attacks.

In Pakistan, the father of American Heather Mercer refused to talk to reporters after the attacks. John Mercer traveled to Pakistan to lobby for his daughter's release. She was arrested Aug. 3 along with fellow American Dayna Curry.

Two days later, the Taliban's religious police came to the Shelter Now offices and arrested the other six foreign employees and 16 Afghan staff members.

On Saturday, the Taliban offered to free the aid workers if the United States halted its "massive propaganda campaign," but Bush rejected the offer.

Germany also called the offer "totally unacceptable," and said it meant the eight were "hostages," Pleuger said at a news conference in Berlin.

In Australia, the government said it was concerned about the aid workers' safety.

"We can't have a situation where the safety ... of people ... (is) put under threat," Prime Minister John Howard said.

Bunch's family had remained positive before Sunday's attacks, but was devastated by the air strikes, an unidentified person close to the family told Australia's national news agency, Australian Associated Press.

Thomas' brother, Joseph Thomas, echoed the feelings of the Bunch family.

"I'm really concerned about America's actions at the moment," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Pastor John Finkelde from Perth's North City Christian Center, to which Thomas and Bunch belong, said he received a hand written fax from Diana Thomas last week that had a "very positive, upbeat feel to it."

He said Thomas had described how the aid workers had been moved to a location where they were able to cook their own meals and even order takeout food from a restaurant.

The other aid workers being held are Germans Silke Duerrkopf, George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar and Kati Jelinek.

The mother of an English journalist detained in Afghanistan also condemned the U.S.-British attacks, saying the timing would delay her daughter's release.

A Taliban spokesman said Sunday that Daily Express newspaper reporter Yvonne Ridley, 43, had been released from a jail in Kabul, but her parents said they have heard nothing of her since.

"My Yvonne was a free woman," Joyce Ridley, 73, told reporters Monday outside her home at West Pelton in northern England. "Why then could they not delay the bombing for a few hours? I just cannot accept that."

Ridley said the Taliban had agreed to transport her daughter to Afghanistan's border with Pakistan at sunrise Monday.