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Taleban free detained UNHCR staff, journalists

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (AP) – The Taleban released two foreign journalists working with the United Nations (UN) refugee agency and several of the aid organisation’s Afghan staff on Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said, hours after news broke about their detentions in the capital, Kabul.

The announcement followed a tweet by Taleban-appointed Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Zabihullah Mujahid, who said they were detained because they didn’t have documents that properly identified them as UNHCR. Mujahid said they were freed after their identities were confirmed.

“We are relieved to confirm the release in Kabul of the two journalists on assignment with UNHCR, and the Afghan nationals working with them,” the Geneva-based organisation said in a brief two-sentence statement.

“We are grateful to all who expressed concern and offered help. We remain committed to the people of Afghanistan.”

The development in Kabul comes as United States (US) President Joe Biden signed an executive order that promised USD3.5 billion – out of USD7 billion of Afghanistan’s assets frozen in the US – would be given to families of America’s 9/11 victims. The other USD3.5 billion would be freed for Afghan aid.

Taleban fighters walking on the frozen Qargha Lake, near Kabul, Afghanistan. PHOTO: AP

The order would allow US financial institutions to facilitate access to the money by humanitarian groups, which would then give it directly to the Afghan people.

One of the detained foreign journalists was Andrew North, a former BBC journalist who has worked extensively in Afghanistan. His wife, Natalia Antelava, had earlier issued a plea on Twitter for his release.

“Andrew was in Kabul working for the UNHCR @Refugees trying to help the people of Afghanistan,” Antelava said. “We are extremely concerned for his safety and call on anyone with influence to help secure his release.”

The Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) had also condemned the detentions and called for the immediate release of the journalists.

“The Taleban must immediately release Andrew North and all other journalists held for their work, and cease harassing and detaining members of the press,” the CPJ statement said, noting they were detained on Tuesday.