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Kidnappers Free 16 Afghan Demining Workers

GARDEZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Sixteen Afghans working for a United Nations-sponsored demining agency who were kidnapped at the weekend have been freed unharmed, an agency official has said.

The Mine Detection and Dog Center (MDC) personnel were seized by gunmen on a highway in eastern Paktia province on July 4. The MDC is part of the overall UN mine-clearing agency in Afghanistan known as UNMACA.

Sherin Agha Ahmad Shah, head of the MDC in Paktia, said tribal chiefs in the province made contact with the kidnappers and were able to secure the release of the men late on July 5.

"The kidnappers were thieves and the tribal chiefs negotiated the release of the workers without any ransom or any deal," he told reporters, without giving further details.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement police were also involved in securing their release.

Kidnapping of Afghans and foreigners has become a lucrative business both for Taliban insurgents and criminal gangs in recent years. Some captives have been killed while others have been released after ransoms were apparently paid.

Separately, no further information has emerged about two Afghan employees working for Dutch aid agency HealthNet TPO (HNI) who the Afghan Health Ministry said were abducted in neighboring Khost Province on July 4.

HNI is a Netherlands-based aid agency specializing in rehabilitating health-care systems in war zones and disaster areas. No one has claimed responsibility for their abductions.

In Paktia last year, 13 deminers working for another agency were kidnapped by a criminal gang but were freed a month later after mediation by tribal chiefs.

With insurgent violence at its worst since the Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001, thousands of U.S. Marines launched a major new offensive last week in southern Helmand Province, long a Taliban stronghold and opium-growing hub.