16 Afghan abducted: govt

KABUL: Armed men abducted 14 Afghan employees of a private mine clearing company contracted to the United Nations in Afghanistan, while two health workers were abducted separately, officials said Sunday.

The mine clearers, employed by the Mine Detection and Dog Centre (MDC), were seized on Saturday as they were clearing mines in the eastern province Paktya, interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told a press conference.

"Fourteen workers of MDC demining organisation who were busy serving the Afghan nation were kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Tandan area of Gardez pass," he said.

No one claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Taliban militants as well as criminals have been involved such seizures.

The thousands of men who work to clear Afghanistan of its mines -- a legacy of decades of war -- often work in remote areas, making them regular targets of insurgent and criminal attacks.

Three suspects in the case had been arrested and efforts were under way though influential men in the area to secure their release, Bashary said.

Paktya is on the border with Pakistan, with most frontier provinces suffering from insurgent or other violence.

Afghanistan, which has suffered three decades of war, has the world's largest mine clearance programme employing 8,000 Afghans, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines says.

The UN said last year two-thirds of Afghanistan had been cleared of mines but four million people still lived on land planted with the devices.

Twenty-two employees of the MDC, which has 1,800 staff working across the country, have been killed since 2001, mainly in areas where the Taliban still have influence, the group told AFP last year.

Major military operations have been under way across Afghanistan for weeks to clear insurgent strongholds ahead of the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections.

Southern Helmand province is an important insurgent base and US, British and Danish forces have been moving against the Taliban for weeks.

The health ministry announced meanwhile that two employees of internationally funded non-governmental group HealthNet International had been seized on Saturday in Khost province, which neighbours Paktya.

It gave no details of the incident but said called on religious and tribal elders to intervene.

Aid groups working in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, are regularly caught up in the violence of the insurgency which has gained pace as international troops pour into the country.

Three Afghan aid workers were killed in a roadside bomb blast on June 23 in northern Afghanistan.

Thirty-one aid workers were killed in attacks last year, according to an umbrella body for nearly 100 Afghan and international non-governmental organisations. This compared to 17 killed in 2007.