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Abducted Indian workers released

KABUL DEC. 24. The two Indian workers who were abducted in central Afghanistan while working on a key road project have been released after over two weeks in captivity.

The Afghan Interior Minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, said today that the two men were released on Tuesday night and that no ransom payment was made. "Finally, the people who abducted them agreed to free them without conditions," he said. "I think these people made a good decision to free our friends."

The Government had said that Taliban rebels were believed responsible for the kidnapping, and Taliban spokesmen had called several news organisations claiming responsibility. But Mr. Jalali said on Wednesday that the kidnappers had no links with the leaders of the ousted hard-line government.

"The people who kidnapped them had no relations with the leaders of the Taliban who claimed that they were responsible," Mr. Jalali said. "They were local people."

It was not clear what motivated the kidnappers to take the Indians, or what convinced them to release the men. Mr. Jalali said that the Government had negotiated the handover through village elders and local tribal leaders.

"We're delighted the boys are back with us," India's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, said at a brief press conference in Kabul.

The two — identified by their company as P. Murali and G. Varadayya — appeared healthy but nervous at the press conference. They said their abductors did not mistreat them and that they were moved frequently during their captivity.

The two were kidnapped on December 6 during a shopping trip in the southern Zabul province, where they were working on the $270-million refurbishment of the Kabul-Kandahar highway, the country's main transport artery.

On Monday, an official in Zabul said that Taliban rebels had sent a letter demanding the release of 55 of their prisoners in return for the workers. A Taliban spokesman had previously claimed responsibility for abducting the Indians but issued no demands.

The hostages worked for one of several foreign contractors working on the highway, which was inaugurated last week by the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and U.S. officials.

The highway has come to symbolise efforts to revive the impoverished country after more than two decades of conflict as well as its continued instability as it attracted a string of Taliban attacks.

Four security guards were killed in August and mine-disposal operations along the road were suspended last month after a car hijacking.

A Turkish engineer working on the same road was kidnapped by the Taliban in late October, but released a month later after two Taliban prisoners were freed, although Afghan officials denied any deal was struck.

The same day the Indians were kidnapped, a U.S. warplane strafed a mountain village in neighbouring Ghazni province in an attempt to kill a Taliban militant suspected of attacks on the road. Instead, nine children were killed. The U.S. military acknowledged last week that the militant escaped. — AP

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