Afghan UN kidnappers say government agrees deal
The kidnappers of three U.N. workers in Afghanistan said the government agreed terms for their release on Wednesday, but there was no confirmation and a top U.S. official said a deal would encourage hostage taking.
The kidnappers from a Taliban faction have threatened to kill Annetta Flanigan from Northern Ireland, Shqipe Hebibi from Kosovo and Filipino diplomat Angelito Nayan unless 26 Taliban prisoners, some of whom may be in U.S. custody, were freed.
Mullah Sabir Momin, one of several men claiming to speak for the Jaish-e Muslimeen (Army of Muslims), told Reuters the group had talks with the government and U.N. officials via intermediaries on Wednesday.
"The intermediaries told us that the government has accepted our demands. They told us that our prisoners will be released in two or three days," he said. "If they release our men and meet our other demands then we will free these foreign hostages."
The U.N. workers were abducted in Kabul on Oct. 28, after helping to run presidential polls won by U.S.-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said he had seen media reports of a deal, but had no independent information to confirm that. But, he said: "We are trying our best to release these hostages and return them to their families."
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the United States wanted to see the hostages released, but said a deal should not be done with the kidnappers.
"It is the United States' view that negotiating with hostage takers, compromising with hostage takers, only encourages more."
He declined to comment on efforts to free the U.N. workers, saying: "These matters have to be handled very delicately."
Behgjet Pacolli, a Kosovo businessman and relative of Hebibi who came to Kabul to press for her release, said he was "very optimistic" the three would be freed on Thursday.
Pacolli said he had the information from "a very good source" that he declined to identify. "I am sure they will be released," he said. "It's just a matter of processing."
A U.N. spokesman in Kabul declined to comment.
Momin said 16 of the 26 Taliban prisoners his group wanted freed were arrested recently in south Afghanistan and could still be there, but the others could be in U.S. jails at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or at Bagram, north of Kabul.
The Afghan government has in the past negotiated the release of several kidnapped foreigners, some by paying ransoms.
Karzai issued a decree on Wednesday evening ordering a traditional prisoner amnesty to mark the Eid al-Fitr festival, which starts at the weekend, but a presidential official said the order did not cover the prisoners the militants want freed.
Those to be released include some elderly, sick and women prisoners, the decree order said. It did not say how many.
Several deadlines for the release of the Taliban members have passed, the latest on Wednesday morning.
Jaish leader Sayed Akbar Agha told Reuters his group had not demanded money. "We don't want to kill anyone, but we will not release these hostages unless our prisoners are released," he said.
"It is our desire that this issue is resolved as soon as possible so that our mujahideen (holy warriors) can go home and the foreigners can also be freed."
The kidnappers have said the three were suffering from the cold and poor food, but two were allowed to phone home on Monday and said they were being well treated.
The abductions have raised fears among the 2,000-strong Western community in Afghanistan that militants have begun copying tactics of insurgents in Iraq.
While the mainstream Taliban has distanced itself from the kidnappings, it has a record of targeting U.N. and other foreign aid workers, severely disrupting aid and reconstruction work.