A French aid worker released by the Taliban after five weeks in captivity in Afghanistan returned to France yesterday and made a plea for his captors to free three Afghans seized with him.
Eric Damfreville arrived at the Villacoublay military airport, west of Paris, where he was met by Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.
"I feel a great joy to be here this morning," said Damfreville, who worked for the humanitarian aid group Terre d'Enfance. "But my joy will be even greater once Azrat, Rasul, Hashim, three Afghans, are also freed."
Damfreville, who had one eye covered by a bandage, looked thin and frail as he stepped off a French military plane.
The head of Terre d'Enfance, Antoine Vuillaume, said Damfreville had spent most of his captivity bound and gagged and described his health as "quite deteriorated."
Damfreville, however, said he was treated well by his captors and that his weakened health was a result of the length of his detention and the sparse conditions of the area where he was held.
"I was treated well ... there was no bad treatment from our captors, who did everything so that the conditions of detention were good," he told reporters in brief remarks.
He was taken by ambulance to a military hospital in the Paris region.
"His release is a relief for all of us," Douste-Blazy said.
The aid worker was released on Friday after 38 days in captivity. He had been abducted along with a female colleague and the three Afghans in the country's southwestern Nimroz province on April 3.
The Taliban released the woman, Celine Cordelier, on April 28. There was no word on the fate of the three Afghans.
After taking the group captive, the Taliban demanded the withdrawal of all remaining French troops from Afghanistan. France pulled 200 French special forces out of Afghanistan late last year and still has about 1,000 troops stationed in the country.
The French aid workers were kidnapped 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.
French President Jacques Chirac said in a statement he was "delighted" to learn of Damfreville's liberation and called for the release of the three Afghans.
Terre d'Enfance said his release was a "great joy" for members of the aid group. It also called for the three Afghans to be freed.
"We will only be completely relieved once Rasul, Azrat and Hashim have been released and returned to their families," the aid group said in a statement. "We ask that the mobilization of French and Afghan authorities -- which led to these first releases -- be continued until there's a happy outcome for everyone."
Meanwhile, new airstrikes in a volatile southern Afghan region have killed up to 10 Taliban fighters close to where villagers say about 40 civilians died during a battle earlier this week.
Taliban fighters ambushed a patrol of US-led coalition and Afghan forces near Sangin in Helmand province Thursday evening, and gunfire and airstrikes killed 10 militants, said Eizatullah Khan, the Sangin district chief.
A coalition spokesman, Sargent 1st Class Dean Welch, put the toll at six Taliban killed. He had no further details. Two villagers from Sangin said they knew of no civilian casualties caused by the fight.
Airstrikes called in by US Special Forces fighting some 200 Taliban militants north of Sangin on Tuesday killed 21 civilians, government officials said, while villagers said nearly 40 civilians were killed.
The US-led coalition confirmed that the battle caused civilian casualties, killing at least one child, and that a joint Afghan-U.S. team would investigate.
General Dan McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told NPR News' "Morning Edition" that "it does appear there were civilian casualties" but that it wasn't clear what caused them. He said it was likely the Taliban militants had been firing on coalition forces from civilian homes.
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