Rescued Workers Celebrate Freedom

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The two American women jailed for three months by the Taliban offered thanks to government and aid officials who helped free them and details about their time inside Afghanistan at a Friday news conference.

Christian aid workers Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry described endless hours of waiting inside Taliban prisons and weeks without any contact with the outside world. Nights were often chilly, and they could hear the sounds of the U.S. assault on Kabul.

"Our building was shaking, our prison was shaking, all we could do was sit in the hallway and pray with all our hearts that the building wouldn't be damaged in any way," Mercer said.

They and six other aid workers — two Australians and four Germans — were swooped up from an Afghan field Thursday by U.S. special forces helicopters and airlifted to safety.

Mercer called it "a Hollywood rescue." Curry said that the night the Taliban abandoned the capital city, they were taken away in a truck, perched atop rocket launchers.

"I just know that it was through the prayers of the people that we were able to come out alive," Curry said.

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.

The women said that when they first were detained, they were thoroughly interrogated. But they were well-treated in custody, and allowed to pray.

The U.S. helicopters dropped the aid workers off at Chaklala air base on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. All appeared in good health after three months in captivity — the last two hours of which they spent in a fetid jail in Ghazni, about 50 miles south of Kabul.

As the Taliban were fleeing the Afghan capital Kabul early Tuesday, the eight thought they were about to be freed. Instead, the Taliban put them in a vehicle and began driving them south.

The Taliban "put us all into a steel [shipping] container," said Georg Taubmann, one of the freed Germans. "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 the jail in Ghazni.

They soon heard bombing by American war planes. An hour later, an uprising against the Taliban began. Shortly afterward, bearded gunmen "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," he said.

But the men shouted "Freedom!" and let the aid workers out onto the streets of Ghazni, where Taubmann said they were treated like conquering heroes.

"We walked into the city, and the people came out of the houses and they hugged us and they greeted us. 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.

The soldiers provided protection for the aid workers until three U.S. special forces helicopters picked them up in a field near Ghazni in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday.

Taubmann said the women burned their burqas — the all-encompassing robes the Taliban requires females to wear — so that American helicopter could find them in the darkness.

"It was very dramatic right until the end," he said.

In addition to Taubmann, Mercer and Curry, the other aid workers are three Germans, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf; and Australians Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch.

Also, 16 Afghan employees of Shelter Now International, who were detained along with the foreigners, were freed when the northern alliance forces entered Kabul on Tuesday, said U.N. officials in Islamabad.

The co-director of Shelter Now International, Joachim Jager, said in Germany that the eight aid workers planned to take two or three weeks to recover from their ordeal at a place he did not name.

Tilden Curry was standing in line at a church supper Wednesday when he heard his daughter was free. Dayna Curry called her father later and they spoke for about 15 minutes.

"It was overwhelming to hear her voice," he told Nashville television station WSMV.

Mercer's mother, Deborah Oddy, said she spoke with her daughter for 45 minutes by telephone Thursday. Oddy said her daughter seemed to be in good health and spirits.

"There were good days and there were bad days. Overall, she was treated very well," Oddy said on CNN's Larry King Live.

Sue Fuller, Dayna Curry's stepmother, said the family never lost faith that she would survive her ordeal.

"Every time we heard from her, she let us know that she would get out safely," she told Larry King.

President Bush hailed the dramatic turn of events, and said he spoke Thursday morning with the two Americans — both natives of central Texas.

"They both said to say thanks to everybody for their prayers," Bush said at Crawford High School, near his Texas ranch. "They realized there is a good and gracious God. Their spirits were high and they love America."

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.

The Red Cross said in Geneva that a local military commander contacted the ICRC, saying he had rescued the eight foreigners and wanted help transporting them out of Afghanistan.

The aid organization said it relayed messages between the commander and the U.S., Australian and German governments, but said it was unable to say which ethnic or military group the commander belonged to.

Bush said only that the 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. He did not elaborate.

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.

Taliban Supreme Court judges had indefinitely postponed the aid workers' trial since they were charged Aug. 3. The judges said they feared their anger over U.S. airstrikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.