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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 29700

Mrs MOYLAN (2:11 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister please update the House about the welfare of Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch, the two Australian aid workers currently being held in Afghanistan? Would the minister also inform the House of any steps being taken to aid the release of Ms Thomas and Mr Bunch?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for Pearce for her question and recognise the concern she shows for Australians who may get into difficulties when they are overseas. The government is deeply concerned about the welfare of the two Australian aid workers, Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch. They were detained in Afghanistan around two weeks ago. My department here in Canberra and also our High Commission in Islamabad—which is the nearest appropriate post to Afghanistan—are doing everything they can, even at this stage, to secure more information about Ms Thomas and Mr Bunch and to get consular access to them. We are working very closely with the German and American governments, as well as the United Nations, in order to try to secure the release of the two Australians.

There is no doubt that having the three governments—the German, the United States and the Australian governments—working together in a cooperative way is maximising the effectiveness of any campaign we can run to get the Australians released. But so far I have to say I am very disappointed with the results we have been able to achieve. For example, the Taliban have so far denied all consular access to the detainees. They have also so far refused to extend the Australian Consul's visa and also the visas of the visiting German and American Consuls. As a consequence, if those visas are not extended by tomorrow, they will have to return to Islamabad. The Taliban have agreed to pass on some personal care items that our Consul has taken with him to Kabul, but we do not have any confirmation yet as to whether Ms Thomas or Mr Bunch have received the items.

This recent action by the Taliban of arresting eight international and also 16 of their national aid workers is of concern to governments and aid organisations around the world. It is our view that, whatever the private beliefs of the Australians may be, these were people doing good work in Afghanistan helping the Afghan people and this was a humanitarian mission. It is also always deeply regrettable when there is this sort of outcome as a result of humanitarian work. I commend the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, for his appeal to the Taliban for a speedy solution to this problem.

I can assure the House that the Australian government will continue to work tirelessly to get Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch released from Afghanistan and we will continue to retain close contact with their families, who have our sympathy and also our support.