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Europe

Italian Judge Frees German Aid Workers

Three Germans working for a charity organization that helped 37 African asylum-seekers reach Italy this week were released by an Italian judge on Friday.

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Schmidt and Bierdel before their arrest

The judge's decision came after a hearing at the prison in the southern Sicilian town of Agrigento, where the aid workers were being held.

Earlier on Friday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had called for a German aid worker and two crew members of the German humanitarian aid ship Cap Anamur to be freed from detention in Italy.

The ship's captain Stefan Schmidt, first officer Vladimir Dhchkevitch and the head of the Cap Anamur aid association, Elias Bierdel had been accused of abetting illegal immigration.

"I would like to see the Germans spared custody," Schröder told N24 TV in his first comment on the issue.

The three were arrested on Monday after the Italian authorities allowed 37 Africans to disembark in Sicily after three weeks on the ship.

They had faced up to 12 years in jail and a fine of €15,000 ($18,500) for each immigrant they brought into the country if charged and convicted.

Italian authorties had accused the Cap Anamur of telling a "pack of lies" to get them to allow the Africans ashore. The group said it found the Africans in distress floating on a dinghy in the Mediterranean last month.

Italy had repeatedly refused to admit the Africans saying Malta should take them as the ship stopped there first, and only relented under the glare of the international media when the situation onboard reportedly began to deteriorate. Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said Wednesday the asylum claims by the 37 Africans from Ghana, Nigeria and Niger were unacceptable, but would be heard by the country's refugee agency.

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