3 Italian aid workers freed in Afghanistan

KABUL (AP) — Afghan authorities released three Italian medical workers who had been detained for a week, clearing them of allegations they were part of a Taliban plot to kill a provincial governor, Italian and Afghan officials said.

The Afghan intelligence service said the three Italian as well as five Afghan employees of the Italian aid group Emergency were freed Sunday because they were no longer believed to be part of the plot. A sixth Afghan employee remained in custody.

The nine Emergency employees were taken into custody April 10 after Afghan and British forces found explosives and handguns in an Emergency hospital in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.

Officials in Helmand suspected that Emergency employees were bribed by Taliban insurgents to smuggle weapons into the hospital in preparation for an assassination attempt on the provincial governor. Emergency strongly denied the accusation.

The Afghan intelligence service said the employee still in custody had been pressured into conspiring with militants.

"This plan was made by the enemies of peace and stability from outside Afghanistan's borders, who pressured one of the Afghan employees of Emergency," the Afghan intelligence service said in a statement.

In Milan, Italy, the founder of Emergency, Gino Strada, alleged that the detentions were an attempt to discredit Emergency, since both civilians and Taliban receive treatment at the hospital.

"Someone tried to discredit Emergency and failed," Strada told a news conference, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

He said he hoped an investigation would shed light on the incident to determine who was responsible. What is certain is that "someone evidently doesn't like Emergency," he said.

In Kabul, the three Italians met with reporters in a lounge at the Italian Embassy late Sunday. They smiled and laughed with each other, looking tired and relieved.

Marco Garatti, a surgeon with the group, said that they were well treated while in custody.

"Well, you know we were in jail ... of course to be in isolation is quite hard," Garatti said as he sat on a couch wearing a wrinkled white button-down shirt and flanked by his colleagues. "But again, I would say that we were treated with extreme care, with extreme humanity."

"We are happy to be released and to be released with a clean, clear name," Garatti said.

He did not comment on the circumstances of their arrest or the allegations against them.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy requested that the Italians be released immediately after seven days had passed and no charges were filed. The Afghans agreed on the understanding that if the Afghans come up with new charges, or flesh out the previous accusations, the Italian justice system would handle the case, he said.

He called the solution a goodwill gesture on the part of the Afghans and said the release came about "without putting into question" Italy's relations with the Afghan government.

The three Italians — Garatti, Matteo Dell'Aira and Matteo Pagani — have worked with Emergency since 2000. After the arrests, Emergency, which operates three hospitals and 28 clinics around Afghanistan, temporarily withdrew all staff from the hospital in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah as a safety precaution.