WASHINGTON – U.S. military helicopters on Thursday airlifted to safety eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, who were freed after three months in Taliban captivity for preaching Christianity.
The aid workers -- two Americans, two Australians and four Germans -- were freed from a squalid Afghan prison during an anti-Taliban uprising. They landed at Chaklali air base on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and all appeared to be in good health.
"It's like a miracle," said Georg Taubmann, one of the freed Germans, said upon his arrival at the German Embassy in Islamabad.
The aid workers for Shelter Now International, a German-based group, had been accused by the Taliban of preaching Christianity, a serious offense under the Taliban's harsh Islamic rule.
As the Taliban were fleeing the Afghan capital Kabul early Tuesday, the eight thought they were about to be freed. Instead, the Taliban hastily put them in a vehicle and began driving them south as they retreated.
The Taliban "put us all into a steel container," Taubmann recounted. "It was terribly cold. They wanted to lock the container and leave us in there until the morning. We had no blankets. We were freezing the whole night through."
On Tuesday morning, the six women and two men were removed and placed in a fetid jail in Ghazni, about 50 miles south of Kabul.
As soon as they were placed in a cell, they heard bombing by American war planes. An hour later, an uprising against the Taliban began, and shortly afterward, northern alliance troops came "and broke into the prison. They just opened the doors, and we actually were afraid the Taliban were coming and taking us to Kandahar. We were really scared."
But Taubmann and the others were treated as conquering heroes when they emerged on the streets of Ghazni.
"We walked into the city and the people came out of the houses and they hugged us and they greeted. They were all clapping," he said. "They didn't know there were foreigners in the prison."
"It was like a big celebration for all those people," Taubmann said, adding, "I think it was one of the biggest days of my life."
The northern alliance provided protection for the aid workers Tuesday and Wednesday.
Three U.S. special forces helicopters picked up the aid workers in a field near Ghazni in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, Defense Department officials said in Washington.
President Bush hailed the dramatic turn of events culminating in the workers' safe arrival in Pakistan.
"I'm thankful they're safe, and I'm pleased with our military for conducting this operation," Bush said at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush had rejected several attempts by the Taliban to use the aid workers as bargaining chips.
The Taliban had agreed to turn over the aid workers through the International Committee of the Red Cross, two senior administration officials said. The Red Cross was going to get them into the hands of U.S. troops. But before the exchange could be accomplished, the anti-Taliban northern alliance overran Ghazni.
Bush said only that the International Red Cross and other "people on the ground facilitated" U.S. troops' ability to rescue the aid workers.
The president said he had been worried that the Taliban might put the aid workers in a house that might be bombed accidentally, and said the U.S. military had been working on plans for a secret rescue if needed.
"We thought of different ways to extricate them from the prison they were in," Bush said without elaborating.
Bush said the rescue of the aid workers ended one chapter in the five-week-old U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, but the mission remained to topple the Taliban -- already run out of the north by rebels -- and to root out Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
"We still want Al Qaeda and want to make sure Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorist activity," Bush said. "This could take a while and I'm patient and ... our military and our troops on the ground are on the hunt until we can accomplish our objectives."
At nearby Waco, Texas, at the Antioch Community Church, several people gathered in front of a television set to listen to the news about the two Americans, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, who are church members.
Senior pastor Jimmy Seibert thrust his arms into the air when news aired that the aid workers had been released.
"Thank you, Lord," he shouted. "It is more exciting than we could have imagined. The great thing I learned is that prayer works."
In Australia, Joseph Thomas, brother of aid worker Diana Thomas, said Thursday his prayers had been answered. He also gave credit to the Taliban for their humane treatment of the aid workers.
"If you look at the facts, since they've been captive, they've been looked after and they've been given everything that they have wanted," Thomas told a Sydney radio station.
"They've fed them, there's many times they could have shot them, and so I think they've done the right thing," he added.
The eight workers are employees of the German-based Christian organization Shelter Now International. They have been held since Aug. 3 on charges of trying to convert Muslims, which was a serious offense under the Taliban's harsh Islamic rule.
Taliban Supreme Court judges had indefinitely postponed their trial, saying they feared their anger at the United States over the airstrikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling in the case.