Hostage Medair aid workers in Afghanistan freed from cave

KABUL, Afghanistan — Four aid group workers held hostage in a cave in northeastern Afghanistan were rescued early Saturday by NATO-led forces, according to British and alliance officials.

The four, a British woman and Kenyan woman and their two male Afghan colleagues, were reportedly in good condition. They had been kidnapped May 22 as they headed to impoverished areas of Badakhshan province on horseback during a mission for Medair, a charity group based in Switzerland.

The rescue occurred shortly after midnight in a remote, forested area reportedly inhabited by smugglers and bandits. The province borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. Abdul Maroof Rasekh, spokesman for the Badakhshan governor, said NATO and Afghan forces worked together on the 5½-hour operation, in which five of the captors were killed. There were no immediate reports of injuries among rescue team members.

The coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in a statement that a rescue helicopter approached the area — reportedly after tips from Afghan sources — confirmed that the hostages were there, secured the area and carried out the rescue.

The mission reportedly involved U.S. and British special forces troops who had planned and rehearsed the operation, suggesting that they had some intelligence on the location.

Local police were quoted as saying that the captors were members of criminal gangs intent on taking advantage of the area’s forbidding terrain and weak security to make money. Coalition officials labeled them part of an armed terrorist group with ties to the Taliban. The hostage takers were reportedly armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault weapons.

The British Foreign Office said in a statement that the rescue was authorized by Prime Minister David Cameron. “We pay tribute to the bravery of the coalition forces, which means that all four aid workers will soon be rejoining their families and loved ones,” the Foreign Office said.

Briton Helen Johnston and Kenyan Moragwa Oirere were reportedly being cared for Saturday at the British Embassy in Kabul and the Afghan workers were in the process of returning to their families in Badakhshan.

“We are delighted and hugely relieved by the wonderful news that Helen and all her colleagues have been freed,” Johnston’s family said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful to everyone involved in her rescue, to those who worked tirelessly on her behalf, and to family and friends for their love, prayers and support over the last 12 days.”

Medair said the team was abducted while visiting relief sites providing nutrition, hygiene and health assistance, and expressed relief that the rescue was successful.

“It’s a joyful day,” said Aurelien Demaurex, Medair’s spokesman. “We’re incredibly relieved.”

Foreign aid workers in Afghanistan are under growing threat as the Taliban steps up attacks before a planned pullout of coalition combat troops by the end of 2014. Two years ago, 10 foreign medical workers, including six Americans returning from a mission to provide eye treatments in remote villages in Badakhshan were killed. Insurgents were blamed for the attack.

Demaurex said that, given the euphoria over the release, it was too early to assess whether Medair will curtail its humanitarian activities in remote areas of Afghanistan. But he said the organization would study the question.

“We are concerned about the people we are serving, but don’t want to put our staff in harm’s way,” he said. “It’s always difficult trying to find the right balance.”

Special correspondent Baktash reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Magnier from New Delhi. Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.