Three U.N. workers freed by kidnappers in Afghanistan rejoiced at their freedom Wednesday and said they were sustained through 27 days of captivity by thoughts of their family and friends.
Looking tired but happy a day after their release, Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan, Annetta Flanigan from Northern Ireland and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo met privately with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
They later had a tearful reunion with colleagues at a U.N. residence and made a statement that cast no light on their mysterious abduction, but made clear their yearning to share the "wonderful feeling" of freedom with loved ones.
"The hope of getting back together with them kept us going," Flanigan read from a sheet of paper, Nayan and Hebibi at her side. "We thank them for their love, their prayers and their friendship. We are looking forward to joining our families and returning to our work."
The three were expected to fly out of Afghanistan on Wednesday or Thursday.
Armed men seized the three, who helped organize Afghanistan's landmark October presidential election, on a busy Kabul street on Oct. 28, the first such abduction since the Taliban fell in late 2001.
A Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, suggesting anti-government rebels were adopting the tactics of Iraqi insurgents. The group claimed Tuesday that the government had agreed to release 24 jailed comrades.
But officials insist they did not agree to pay a ransom or free any jailed militants to secure their release. They have declined to identify the kidnappers or to explain how the hostages became free.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said Wednesday that Afghan authorities' "effective pursuit of the kidnappers. ... led directly to the release."
American forces led one of two raids in the Kabul area on Monday, but Maj. Scott Nelson said their overall role was "truly a limited one."
The freed U.N. workers thanked Karzai and security chiefs, and left his Kabul palace clutching gifts of Afghan carpets. Nayan was also given a traditional chapan robe from the Afghan leader's personal wardrobe.
"We are very glad that by the grace of God our two sisters and a brother who were taken by the hostage-takers, by the criminals, were released safe and sound," said Karzai, who won the Oct. 9 presidential vote.
The ex-hostages also thanked all Afghans for their condemnation of the kidnapping, which could hamper the country's post-Taliban revival.
"During our many months of work here in Afghanistan, we have learned to love Afghanistan, its people, its culture and traditions," Flanigan said.
"The awful experience we went through does not change our feelings for the Afghan people, and the solidarity they have shown during our 27 days of captivity just strengthens our commitment to support Afghanistan in its transition to peace and democracy," she said.
It was unclear if any of them intended to return to Afghanistan, where the United Nations is already preparing for parliamentary elections slated for April.
Afghan officials have expressed hope that the resolution of the hostage crisis will encourage the country's foreign backers to keep up their support.
However, the United Nations and relief groups warned that much of Afghanistan remains dangerous for foreigners. Already this year, 24 aid workers have died in violence blamed on Taliban-led militants and renegade warlords.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who spoke to the three released workers on Tuesday, said he was "profoundly relieved" their ordeal was over.
He said the world body would need to "strengthen the security of its staff in order to enable it to fulfill the organization's mandate to further peace, reconstruction and democracy in Afghanistan."