Special forces from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan stormed a mountain hideout in the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan early Saturday, freeing four aid workers and killing their captors.
The four — Briton Helen Johnston, Kenyan Moragwa Oirere, and their two male Afghan translators — were kidnapped May 22 while traveling by horseback about 55 miles from the provincial capital, Faizabad.
All were employed by Medair, a humanitarian non-governmental organization based in Switzerland, which has long had a presence in Badakhshan.
The aid workers had been held by "an armed terrorist group with very close ties to the Taliban," said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is formally known. He said the kidnappers had been armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
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The operation to free the hostages was launched from a coalition base in northern Afghanistan around 1 a.m. and ended at 2:30 a.m., said Abdul Maroof Rasekh, spokesman for Badakhshan's governor. He said it was a joint Afghan-ISAF effort, but ISAF and other media reports suggested that only coalition forces were involved.
The rescue operation reportedly took place after approval by the ISAF commander, U.S. Marine Gen. John R. Allen, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Both ISAF and Afghan authorities said the hostages appeared to be in good health.
ISAF spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura told McClatchy that the kidnappers guarding the hostages were either killed or wounded during the raid. Rasekh said all five kidnappers present were killed, describing them as "members of criminal gangs."
Meanwhile, two Afghan policemen were killed Saturday when a motorcycle packed with explosives was detonated in Tarin Kot, the capital of restive Uruzgan province. The blast also killed the bomber, said Farid Hayel, the spokesman for Uruzgan's police chief.
In northern Faryab province, another suicide bomber on a motorbike was fired on by border police as he approached the patrol. The bomber's suicide vest exploded, killing the attacker and injuring two policemen, said General Abdul Khaliq Aqsaee, Faryab's police chief.
In eastern Khost province, which borders Pakistan, at least 12 insurgents were confirmed killed following an attack Friday on Forward Operating Base Salerno, said Baryalai Rawan, a spokesman for Khost's governor.
The attack, which took place around 1:30 p.m., lasted about 30 minutes, but no Afghan or ISAF forces were killed or wounded, Rawan said.
However, he said 20 civilians — including women and children — were wounded when the attackers exploded a truck bomb near the entrance to the heavily-guarded base.
ISAF said in a statement that a leader of the Haqqani insurgent group who planned and coordinated yesterday's attack had been detained in Khost province in a joint Afghan-ISAF operation.
Also Saturday, ISAF said one of its service members had died following an insurgent attack in southern Afghanistan. The coalition did not provide further details.
(Stephenson and Safi are McClatchy special correspondents.)