Karzai offers peace, Taliban free Frenchwoman

KABUL Sat Apr 28, 2007 4:41pm EDT

1 of 3. The French aid worker identified only as Celine cries as she speaks to the media in the French embassy in Kabul April 28, 2007. The Taliban freed the French aid worker on Saturday as President Hamid Karzai marked the anniversary of the end of communist rule with a fresh offer of olive branch to the resurgent Islamic guerrillas.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

KABUL (Reuters) - A sobbing French aid worker freed on Saturday by the Taliban pleaded for release of a French colleague and three Afghans while President Hamid Karzai offered peace talks on the anniversary of the end of communist rule.

The woman, identified only as Celine and wearing a black and white headscarf, could barely be heard through her crying as she spoke to journalists at the French embassy in Kabul.

"Please release them," she said after reading a statement from the Taliban demanding the withdrawal of French troops.

"I'm just asking them to have pity for Eric, in the name of their God."

The woman, her French male colleague Eric and three Afghans working for their agency, Terre d'Enfance, were kidnapped early this month, weeks after an Italian journalist was abducted.

The Italian was freed after Karzai released five Taliban prisoners in a widely criticized deal, but his Afghan driver and his translator were beheaded. Karzai has ruled out more deals.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said Celine was freed in the southern province of Kandahar as a gesture of goodwill.

Speaking to Reuters by satellite phone from a secret location, he said a deadline for France to meet the Taliban's demands for the release of the remaining four hostages had been extended a week.

OFFERS OLIVE BRANCH

"This release is the result of the efforts made for more than three weeks. They must continue with the same determination and the same discretion until the release of the other hostages," a French Foreign Ministry statement said.

In addition to pulling out its troops -- most of whom are staffing a NATO military hospital in Kabul -- the insurgents want the Afghan government to release more prisoners, Yousuf said.

Asked if a ransom had been paid, Yousuf said Celine had been freed "because she is a woman".

At a ceremony in Kabul on Saturday for the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet-backed communist regime, Karzai again pleaded with the Taliban to talk peace.

"We once again invite those who have sided with aliens because of seduction against their nation, to give up sedition and evil and join peaceful life," he said.

The ceremony was marked by a military parade that included disabled victims of Afghan fighting -- in wheelchairs and on crutches -- as well as Soviet-era tanks and modern U.S. Humvees.

The civil war, which killed tens of thousands, ended with the rise to power of the Taliban in 1996. They were ousted weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and have been fighting Karzai's government and foreign forces ever since.

Karzai is due to fly to Turkey on Sunday to meet Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Taliban use of Pakistan as a sanctuary and training center will be high on the agenda.

Pakistan denies any continued formal support for the group it helped to power in the 1990s, but the issue of cross border infiltration has soured ties between Islamabad and Kabul.

In an interview published on Thursday in the Spanish daily El Pais, Musharraf accused Karzai of weakness on terrorism.

On Saturday, U.S. and Afghan forces killed 10 Taliban who ambushed a convoy in Helmand, the southern province that accounts for more of the opium output for the world's major producer, the U.S. military said.

(additional reporting by Paris newsroom)

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