KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – A French aid worker tearfully thanked the Taliban for releasing her Saturday after more than three weeks in captivity, and pleaded for the freedom of four colleagues still held in southern Afghanistan.

The woman – so far identified only by her first name, Celine – was kidnapped in southwestern Nimroz province on April 3 with a French co-worker identified as Eric and three Afghan colleagues who worked for the charity Terre d’Enfance.

“I want to ask them to have pity in the name of their God,” she said at the French embassy in Kabul, her voice shaking and barely audible at times. “Eric came like me, to Afghanistan as a friend. Hashim, Rasul and Azrat are Afghans. They are Muslims. They are their brothers. They have children waiting for them.”

Wearing a pink shalwar kameez tunic and a black scarf, Celine said in French, “I thank the Taliban for keeping their promise and giving me back my life. I will never forget that they gave me something to eat and drink and treated me with respect.”

Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said Celine was handed over to tribal leaders in the Maywand district of southern Kandahar province.

“Because she is a woman, to make good relations with the French government, we have handed this woman over to Maywand district tribal leaders,” Ahmadi told The Associated Press by telephone.

She was given a letter in broken English, which she read prior to her French statement, lashing out at the West for saying the Taliban have “no respect for women rights” and saying that they had treated Celine properly.

“Now we want from French to leave our country, it is our right,” the letter said.

French President Jacques Chirac said he was “delighted” by the release.

“Everyone must now redouble the efforts to obtain it for other hostages, with the greatest discretion,” he said in a statement released by his office.

Ahmadi said Eric and the three Afghans were still being held, and he reiterated the Taliban’s demands for the withdrawal of French troops.

“When the French government withdraws its forces from our country, then we will negotiate the release of this French man and three Afghans as well,” he said.

Without directly addressing the demand, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Friday that, “France doesn’t have the aim of staying in Afghanistan.”

France has about 1,000 troops in the country and pulled out 200 French special forces late last year.

French officials said then that the special forces were no longer ideal for the mission, as fighting in Afghanistan has dragged on and the insurgency has strengthened. Such elite units tend to be more lightly armed, and specialize in tasks such as gathering intelligence and launching rapid attacks.

The French elite troops – deployed in southeastern Afghanistan since July 2003 – were France’s contribution to a U.S. anti-terror mission code-named Operation Enduring Freedom, which is separate from the NATO mission.

Antoine Vuillaume, who heads Terre d’Enfance, or A World for Our Children, told reporters in Paris that he hoped Celine would return to France “as soon as possible, based on her physical and psychological state … She is very tired, very hard-hit.”

The kidnapping came two weeks after Afghan authorities released five Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian newspaper reporter, who was abducted along with his two Afghan colleagues in southern Helmand province on March 5. The two Afghans were killed.

The deal was heavily criticized by the United States and some European nations. Afghan lawmakers and foreigners working in the country said it gave the Taliban incentive to stage more kidnappings.

The Afghan government has said the prisoner swap was a one-time deal for the Italian journalist, and has ruled out any future exchanges.


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