Western diplomats Tuesday left Afghanistan frustrated but determined to press on with efforts to visit eight foreigners detained by the Taliban militia for allegedly preaching Christianity.
The Pakistan-based envoys said they would continue to demand permission to visit the two Americans, two Australians and four Germans facing trial under the Islamic militia's puritanical brand of Sharia law.
But in a defiant response to United Nations criticism, the Taliban foreign ministry defended its action against the aid workers and said their punishment would fit the alleged crime.
"It will be found after the investigation whether these people were conducting these activities of their own choice or whether they had the support of a power," a foreign ministry statement said.
"If they are found to have done these unlawful activities by themselves then they will be given the necessary punishment," it said, without elaborating.
Taliban officials have said the foreigners would be sent to trial and could face anything from expulsion to the death penalty, although the charges have not been explained.
The American, Australian and German envoys spent a week in Kabul but were not allowed to meet the prisoners while investigations continued.
Their visas expired Tuesday and the Taliban authorities declined to extend them.
"The sole purpose of our mission has been to visit our nationals and to verify their well-being, which is normal practice in consular matters," US envoy David Donahue said, reading from a joint statement.
"We return to Islamabad (Pakistan) to continue our efforts to obtain consular access and to work for the speedy release of our citizens."
The aid workers, as well as 16 Afghan co-workers from German-based group Shelter Now, were arrested between August 3 and 5 and have not been seen since.
Under Taliban law, the punishments will probably be more severe for the Afghans, especially if they are found to have renounced Islam.
Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel told the Afghan Islamic Press the militia was considering allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the prisoners, who were still "under interrogation".
But a Red Cross official in Geneva said so far there had been no Taliban response to requests to visit them on humanitarian grounds.
The aid workers were being held in two detention centers in Kabul under tight guard.
The two foreign men and six women were denied permission to write to their families, raising concerns that psychological pressure was being used as part of the interrogations.
Australian consul Alastar Adams said the diplomats were "very grateful" that the Taliban had passed on packages to the detainees, including food and letters from their families.
"Face to face they (the Taliban) told us that they're well and their health is good.... Somebody saw them yesterday and that's reassuring," he said.
"We are hopeful that once the investigation is completed we will be able to see the detainees."
Mutawakel has said all aid groups in Afghanistan, which has been devastated by relentless drought and more than 20 years of civil war, are under suspicion, including some United Nations agencies.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Friday appealed to the militia to allow consular visits.
He said the denial of access sent a bad signal "at a time when Afghans are suffering the combined effects of war, extreme poverty, massive displacement and severe drought." -- KABUL (AFP)
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