A group of aid workers, including two foreign women, who were abducted in the mountains of extreme northeast Afghanistan, have been freed in a security operation, according to officials.
The four aid workers, freed in a pre-dawn raid on Saturday, were on their way to flood-stricken areas of Badakhshan province in late May when they were abducted by gunmen.
Helen Johnston, 28, from Britain, and Moragwa Oirere, 26, from Kenya, and their two Afghan colleagues worked for the Swiss organisation Medair.
In a statement on their website, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), confirmed the rescue of the aid workers and identified the captors as “insurgents”.
“I’m extremely grateful to the Afghan authorities and proud of the ISAF forces that planned, rehearsed, and successfully conducted this operation,” said General John Allen, the ISAF commander.
Coalition forces conducted the rescue mission with the support of the Afghan interior ministry.
The hostages were freed in a joint NATO-Afghan operation in which a helicopter rescue team of special forces raided the cave they were kept in for 11 days.
The five hostage-takers, originally demanding money for the release of the aid workers, were killed in the operation.
Police in Badakhshan said the gunmen in the incident belonged to criminal groups taking advantage of the harsh terrain and the loose grip that Afghan security forces have on the area.
“Mostly smugglers are based in those areas, but of course the smugglers have the support of the Taliban,” Shams ul-Rahman, the deputy provincial governor, said.
The aid workers had been travelling by donkey to visit a clinic in the remote Yawan district, where the road had been destroyed by floods caused by melting snow after one of the worst Afghan winters in decades.
Afghan authorities originally said five people had been kidnapped, but it later emerged that one of the party managed to escape from the hostage takers.
Afghan forces have taken over security in the provincial capital Faizabad and some parts of Badakhshan ahead of the
withdrawal of Western combat forces in 2014.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, approved the rescue operation on Friday afternoon after becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of the hostages.
Cameron said it was “extraordinarily difficult” to decide to go ahead with the operation, which involved a “long route march” without being discovered.
“It was an extraordinarily brave, breathtaking even, operation that our troops had to carry out,” Cameron said.