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U.S. aid workers freed from Taliban's grasp

Eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, held in Afghanistan by the Taliban militia for three months for preaching Christianity were airlifted to freedom Wednesday by U.S. military helicopters, the Pentagon said.

Three U.S. special forces helicopters picked up the aid workers in a field near Ghanzi, about 50 miles southwest of Kabul, about 4:40 p.m. EST. The eight were flown to Pakistan and appeared to be in good health.

It was not clear whether the Taliban released the aid workers, including Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, or they escaped or were freed by U.S. forces.

"I'm thankful they're safe, and I'm pleased with our military for conducting this operation," President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The Taliban had agreed to turn over the aid workers through the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Associated Press reported, quoting two senior administration officials. The Red Cross was then going to turn the detainees over to U.S. troops. But before the exchange could be accomplished, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance overran Ghazni, prompting the Taliban and the aid workers' guards to flee.

Bush said only that the Red Cross and other "people on the ground facilitated" U.S. troops' ability to rescue the aid workers.

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.

"We thought of different ways to extricate them from the prison they were in," Bush said.

Curry and Mercer attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, near Bush's ranch.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, Nancy Cassell, Curry's mother, said before dawn today local time: "They're on their way here. I'm happy and I want to get ready to go where they come in."

The Taliban was driven out of Kabul on Tuesday by U.S.-backed rebel forces. The radical militia headed south, taking the aid workers with them. The eight had been held in cells in a detention center in the Afghan capital.

The workers _ four Germans, two Americans and two Australians _ are employees of the German Christian organization Shelter Now International. They had been held since Aug. 3 on charges of trying to convert Muslims, a serious offense under the Taliban's harsh Islamic rule.

Taliban Supreme Court judges had indefinitely postponed their trial, saying they feared their anger at the United States over the airstrikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling in the case.

Earlier Wednesday, the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi said he was confident the eight would be released soon.

Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, chairman of the Gadhafi Foundation for Charitable Organizations, told the Associated Press that his nongovernmental organization had been in touch with the Taliban for about two months in efforts to win the workers' freedom.

"I believe that the Taliban will release these people in the near future," he said in a statement to the AP made through Libya's consulate in Vienna.

Gadhafi's son said his foundation made contact with the Taliban "with the aim of finding a solution for these people through third-party mediation" and that the effort was bearing fruit "because of the good standing the foundation enjoys in this area."

Libya is eager to improve its standing with the West. Last year it was involved in freeing all but one of 21 Western tourists and Asian workers kidnapped by rebels in the Philippines.

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