ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- U.S. special forces helicopters swooped into an Afghan field Thursday and airlifted to safety eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, who were freed from a squalid prison during an anti-Taliban uprising.
The aid workers, who also included two Australians and four Germans, landed 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.
"It's like a miracle," 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.
The Taliban "put us all into a steel (shipping) 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 the jail in Ghazni.
They soon heard bombing by American war planes. An hour later, an uprising against the Taliban began. 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 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 northern alliance 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.
In addition to Taubmann, the other aid workers are: Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry; 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.
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.
"This is fantastic. It's a great night for us," Mercer's stepfather, Delmer Oddy, said from his home in Lewiston, N.Y.
President Bush hailed the dramatic turn of events.
"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.
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.
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