A Finnish aid worker held hostage for nearly four months in Afghanistan has been freed today (14 September). She had been kidnapped from an international guesthouse in Kabul, run by her employer, Operation Mercy, when it was attacked in May; her German female colleague and Afghan guard were killed. The unnamed woman was studying Dari, preparing for her first assignment.
The Swedish-based aid organisation said “it is with great joy that we confirm the release of our Finnish colleague, who was abducted on 20 May. The well-being of our colleague is being assessed at this time. We request privacy for our colleague and our colleague’s family”.
Finland’s foreign ministry confirmed she was “safe” but gave no further details, according to the BBC.
No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack, nor for holding her hostage.
The German woman had worked in Afghanistan for 13 years (with Operation Mercy since 2011) and headed a literacy project. “Both [women] were experienced and had a deep desire to serve the people of Afghanistan,” said the organisation in a statement shortly after the May attack
The guard, who was beheaded, was employed directly by the residents of the compound, not by the aid agency. Guesthouse neighbours told the German broadcaster ZDF that the perpetrators seemed to have slipped quietly into the guesthouse premises. Operation Mercy said they had broken into the women’s residence, and that other staff were not affected, nor were they aware of the incident as it unfolded.
After the incident, the Finnish foreign ministry, together with the Afghanistan National Directorate of Security, launched an investigation, urging “the immediate release of the kidnapped person”.
Operation Mercy has over 300 staff worldwide. According to its website, its work in Afghanistan includes projects helping to reduce infant mortality, provide leadership training and help to empower women.
‘Very high and constant threat’
The incident once again put the spotlight on insecurity in Afghanistan. Also in May, the German relief agency, GIZ, announced it would close six of its seven offices and residential premises in Kabul and move into a heavily secured compound on the city’s outskirts.
Today (14 September) the Afghan Ambassador to the UK was questioned on the BBC about experts’ warnings that Afghanistan is once again at risk of becoming a base for international terrorism.
Kabul is plagued by criminal gangs, who stage abductions for ransom, often targeting foreigners and wealthy locals, and sometimes handing them over to insurgent groups like the Taliban.
Since the withdrawal of most international troops from Afghanistan in 2014, militant groups such as the Taliban have become more active in waging ‘jihad’ against the government and Western agencies and organisations, using kidnapping as one of its tools.
In 2014 alone, World Watch Monitor reported two incidents where foreign workers were killed, involving three South African and two Finnish citizens.
According to the British government, about 100 Westerners have been kidnapped in Afghanistan since 2001, where there is “a very high and constant threat” of abduction.
Although the kidnapping of foreigners has been on the rise, the threat of abduction is even greater for Afghans. According to the country’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries, at least 80 businessmen were kidnapped in 2016 alone.
This also applies to the murder rates. In a separate attack on the same day as the kidnapping (21 May), Taliban militants killed 20 Afghan police officers at checkpoints in southern Afghanistan, while at least 10 others were injured.
On 28 April, shortly before the attack on the guesthouse, the Taliban announced the start of its spring offensive, announcing “a mix of conventional, guerrilla and suicide attacks on Afghan and foreign forces”, although it said it would minimise civilian casualties.