Family joy at hostage release

Annetta Flanigan was seized in Kabul

The family of County Armagh woman Annetta Flanigan who was held hostage in Afghanistan have spoken of their relief at her release.

Ms Flanigan's family said they were "overjoyed" at the news that Annetta and two UN colleagues were free after 27 days in captivity.

A NATO spokesman said the three hostages were not rescued but were left by their abductors in a park.

A statement, on behalf of her family, was read out by her brother, Andrew, on Tuesday.

Andrew Flanigan

It said: "We are all absolutely overjoyed at the confirmed news that Annetta and her two colleagues, Shqipe and Angelito, have been released.

"After all the terrible anxiety of the last 27 days it is an incredible relief to know that Annetta is safe and well and now reunited with her husband, Jose.

"We wish to express our sincere gratitude to all those who have worked so hard to secure Annetta's release.

"As a family we remain very grateful for everyone's concern about Annetta's well-being and for all the messages of support we have received from family and friends, and also from people all over the world.

"We have been sustained by these messages and the great kindness shown by the wider community.

"Knowing that we have been in so many people's thoughts and prayers has been a great source of comfort to us."

The family said they looked forward to seeing Annetta with her husband Jose when they came home to Northern Ireland in the near future.

United Nations spokesman Farhan Haq said they hoped the three could be quickly reunited with their families.

"We are hoping that will happen fairly shortly," he said, adding that it was possible they could start returning in the next day or so.

Annetta's friend Mary Campbell, a BBC producer, said it was wonderful news.

"It's particularly wonderful for Annetta's family. It's a huge relief and joy for them because it's been a very difficult time for them," she said.

Mary, who studied at Queen's University in Belfast with Annetta, said there had been such hope that Annetta would be freed unharmed.

Reverend David Coe said prayers had been answered.

"A friend in London who is a teacher there had her whole primary school class praying for her daily. Lots of candles have been lit, but it has all worked," she said.

Ms Campbell said she did not know if this ordeal would deter Annetta from her work in the future.

She said: "She is a committed person and she is very strong and if she believes in something she would want to do it."

Reverend David Coe, rector of St Mathews Church in Richhill, where Annetta's family live, said the release of the hostages was the answer to their prayers.

He said Annetta hoped to meet up with her family before Christmas.

"We have been remembering Annetta every day and on Saturdays we had the church opened for a few hours to let the people come in and sit quietly and remember Annetta and her colleagues," he said.

Richhill Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Speers said there was immense relief in the village.

"People were very concerned and, to a certain degree, helpless in the fact that they could do very little about it from such a distance," he said.

"But the community is absolutely delighted. I certainly am, personally, and I'm quite sure that view is shared by everyone."

'End kidnappings'

The wider political community has also welcomed news of the release.

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy said: "I hope that Annetta and her colleagues can now begin to put this dreadful experience behind them and carry on with their lives".

The Irish foreign affairs Minister, Dermot Ahern, said he was absolutely delighted at the news and Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said everyone in Northern Ireland would be breathing a sigh of relief and extending best wishes to the family.

Newry and Armagh MP, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, welcomed her release but appealed for an end to all kidnappings.

"It is my wish that this awful type of activity should end and that no family would have to suffer the torment which so many families have gone through, including the family of Annetta Flanigan."

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Robin Eames said it was the "answer to prayer".

"The dignity and courage of the Flanigan family during this ordeal have been an inspiration to us all," he said.

Annetta and her two colleagues were released on Tuesday morning and taken by UN staff to a military base where they were identified and examined by medical staff.

But Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali denied any deal had been done with the kidnappers.

Flight Lieutenant David Bennett of NATO's International Assistance Force in Kabul said the three hostages had not been rescued but were left by their abductors in a park.

"There had been a number of military operations aimed at releasing the hostages but these had not directly led to the release," he said.

"No money was handed over and no prisoners were released to facilitate the release. The three spent the day with the UN after being checked out at the NATO hospital."

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