KABUL, Afghanistan and NEW DELHI -- Four hostages working for an international aid group were rescued from a cave in northeastern Afghanistan early Saturday morning by NATO-led forces, according to British and alliance officials
The four, a British and Kenyan women and their two male Afghan colleagues, were reportedly in good condition after being kidnapped on May 22 as they headed to impoverished areas of Badakhshan province on horseback while on a mission for Medair, a charity group based in Switzerland.
The rescue occurred shortly after midnight in a remote forested area reportedly inhabited by smugglers and bandits. The province borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. Abdul Maroof Rasekh, spokesman for the Badakhshan governor, said NATO and Afghan forces worked together on the 5½-hour operation, in which five of the captors were killed. No casualties were reported among the rescuers.
The NATO-led coalition said in a statement that a rescue helicopter approached the area -- reportedly after Afghan sources provided information on the whereabouts of the hostages -- confirmed the hostages were at the location, secured the area and carried out the rescue of the four in the cave.
The mission reportedly involved U.S. and British special forces who had planned and rehearsed the operation, suggesting they had some intelligence about the location.
Local police were quoted saying the captors were part of criminal gangs intent on using the area's forbidding terrain and weak security to make money, while coalition officials labeled them part of an armed terrorist group with ties to the Taliban. The hostage takers were reportedly armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault weapons.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement that the rescue was authorized by Prime Minister David Cameron. “We pay tribute to the bravery of the coalition forces which means that all four aid workers will soon be rejoining their families and loved ones,” the statement said.
Briton Helen Johnston, and Kenyan aid worker Moragwa Oirere were reportedly being cared for by the British Embassy in Kabul on Saturday, while the Afghan workers were in the process of returning to their families in Badakhshan.
"We are delighted and hugely relieved by the wonderful news that Helen and all her colleagues have been freed,” Johnston's family said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful to everyone involved in her rescue, to those who worked tirelessly on her behalf, and to family and friends for their love, prayers and support over the last 12 days.”
The family also appealed to the media to show restraint and respect its privacy.
Medair said the team was abducted while visiting relief sites providing nutrition, hygiene and health assistance in Badakhshan province and expressed relief that the rescue was successful.
Foreign aid workers in Afghanistan are under growing threat as the Taliban steps up attacks in advance of a planned 2014 pullout of coalition combat troops from Afghanistan. In 2010, 10 foreign medical workers, including six Americans, were killed in Badakhshan while returning from an excursion to treat eye ailments in remote villages in an attack blamed on insurgents.
-- Hashmat Baktash and Mark Magnier.
Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.
Photo: An undated family photo of Helen Johnston, one of four aid workers rescued in a pre-dawn raid Saturday after being held by militants for 11 days in a cave in northern Afghanistan. Credit: Family photo / British Foreign Office/Associated Press