KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – About 500 Afghan women gathered in a rare mass protest Tuesday against the kidnapping of an American aid worker. The women, many wearing burqas, called on officials to find the captive American and urged the kidnappers to release her.
Officials said they still had not identified any suspects in the kidnapping of Cyd Mizell and her Afghan driver, Abdul Hadi. Gunmen abducted the two people on Saturday in a residential neighborhood of the southern city of Kandahar.
The demonstration by so many Afghan women in the conservative southern province of Kandahar was a rare display of women's wishes. The 90-minute meeting was filled with prayers and speeches calling on government leaders to act.
Rona Tareen, director of the Kandahar Women's Association, urged Mizell's captives to free her immediately, saying she had helped Kandahar's women with small-business projects.
"She was here helping the women in Kandahar. She was trying to get their embroidery outside of the country," Tareen told the 500 to 600 women — many wearing the all-encompassing burqa — who gathered in a Kandahar wedding hall. The crowd estimate came from participants in the rally and an Associated Press journalist.
"Her kidnapping is against our culture and tradition," Tareen said. "We demand that the kidnappers free her immediately."
Another woman, Bibi Nanai, said she received permission from her husband to join the protest.
"I came from my home to show my support," Nanai said. "We are very upset."
Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said Tuesday there were still no suspects in the case and authorities were searching for clues.
No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid reiterated Tuesday that he could neither confirm nor deny that Taliban militants had taken the American woman and her driver.
Mizell, who was wearing a burqa when she was taken, works on aid projects for the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation. The director of her organization, Jeff Palmer, said the kidnappers still had not contacted any officials.
"That's part of the frustration that we're dealing with right now," Palmer said Monday. "We are hoping they will contact us. We want to hear about the safety of Cyd and the driver."
"Nobody really knows" who the kidnappers are, Palmer said.
The Asian Rural Life Development Foundation has taken precautionary measures for other staff members in Kandahar, he said, but declined to elaborate.
Mizell, who taught English at Kandahar University and gave embroidery lessons at a girls' school, speaks the local Pashtu language well, colleagues said. She has worked for the foundation in Kandahar for the last three years, Palmer said.
Several foreigners — including 23 South Koreans, two German construction workers and two Italian journalists — have been kidnapped in Afghanistan in the last year, but kidnappings of Americans are rare. An American civilian was briefly abducted in Kabul in April 2005 but escaped by throwing himself from a moving car.
Kidnappings of Afghans for ransom have been on the rise in the last year, and rumors persist of foreign governments paying large ransoms to win the freedom of their citizens. Two of the 23 South Koreans kidnapped in July were killed while the rest were freed.
Meanwhile, visiting German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told President Hamid Karzai that German troops are ready to "participate in operations against terrorists and cooperate with other international forces in any other part of the country," said a statement from Karzai's office.
Jung, who also held talks with his Afghan counterpart Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak in Kabul, praised the role German troops play in training the fledgling Afghan National Army. Jung also planned to visit some of the 3,000 German troops serving in the relatively peaceful north.
Last year was Afghanistan's most violent since the ouster of the Taliban in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 6,500 people — mostly militants — died as a result, according to an Associated Press count of figures provided by local and international officials.
Most of the fighting occurs in the country's south and east. Germany has been criticized for not joining the frontline of the fight against Taliban and other militants in these areas.