KABUL // NATO forces swooped in by helicopter before dawn Saturday to rescue two female foreign aid workers and their two Afghan colleagues who were held by militants for nearly two weeks in a cave in northern Afghanistan.
British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the "breathtaking" operation, which he approved Friday afternoon after becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of the hostages, one of whom, 28-year-old Helen Johnston, was British.
Johnston was kidnapped along with Moragwe Oirere, a Kenyan, and the two Afghans on May 22 in Badakhshan province. The four work for Medair, a humanitarian non-governmental organization based near Lausanne, Switzerland.
The rescue operation was carried out by British troops in cooperation with other NATO and Afghan forces, Cameron told reporters outside 10 Downing Street in London. He said it was "extraordinarily difficult" to decide to go ahead with the operation, which involved a "long route march" without being discovered.
"It was an extraordinarily brave, breathtaking even, operation that our troops had to carry out," said Cameron. "We will never be able to publish their names but the whole country should know we have an extraordinary group of people who work for us who do amazingly brave things."
All four hostages were rescued safely, no British troops were injured and a number of Taliban militants and kidnappers were killed, said Cameron.
Past rescue attempts in Afghanistan have not always gone so well.
In 2009, an Afghan translator kidnapped alongside a New York Times reporter was killed in a hail of bullets during a rescue attempt by British commandoes. In 2010, the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team 6 tried to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, from her Taliban captors in Afghanistan. She was killed by a grenade thrown in haste by one of the American commandoes.
Afghan officials said seven militants were killed during Saturday's operation, which was launched around 1 a.m.
Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a coalition spokesman, said a helicopter rescue team reached the scene before dawn and confirmed that the hostages were there.
"The kidnappers were armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s," Cummings said. "They were kidnapped by an armed terrorist group with ties to the Taliban."
The aid workers appeared to be in good health, but they will be evaluated before being reunited with their families, he said.
Johnston's family said they were delighted and relieved by the news that the aid worker and her colleagues have been freed.
"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 twelve days," the family said in a statement.
Medair spokesman Aurilien Demaurex also expressed relief that the aid workers were rescued and said the company is "immensely grateful to all parties involved in ensuring their swift and safe return."
Shams ul-Rahman, the deputy governor of Badakhshan province, said the hostages were being held in Gulati, a village in Shahri Buzurg district. It is a mountainous and forested area near the Tajikistan border in extreme northern Afghanistan about 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the district center.
"Mostly smugglers are based in those areas, but of course the smugglers have the support of the Taliban," Rahman said.
He said Afghan elders in the area had worked to seek the release of the aid workers.
"A group of elders was about to go to the village and start negotiations," Rahman said. "Based on intelligence reports that Afghan forces received, a successful operation was conducted that resulted in the release of the hostages and the killing of the kidnappers."
Also Saturday, NATO and Afghan forces detained a militant commander who allegedly planned and coordinated an attack on a coalition base in eastern Khost province Friday. During the operation in the province's Sabari district, the troops also detained several other insurgents and seized an AK-47 and multiple magazines of ammunition, the coalition said.
Militants detonated a truck bomb outside Forward Operating Base Salerno on Friday, then tried to storm the site, but coalition forces repelled the attack, killing 14 militants. No foreign or Afghan troops were killed during the attack, said NATO.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but the militant detained Saturday was a member of the Haqqani network, the coalition said. The Haqqani network, which is based in neighboring Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, is allied with the Taliban and al-Qaida but operates fairly independently. It is considered the most dangerous militant group in Afghanistan and has carried out a series of high-profile attacks in the capital, Kabul.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, four Afghan policemen were killed in two explosions Friday evening and Saturday morning in the south.
Both attacks involved bombs hidden in motorcycles that exploded as police vehicles were passing by in Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province, said Gulab Khan, the director of the criminal investigation department in the province. Each attack killed two policemen. Two other policemen were wounded in Saturday's blast, he said.