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Afghan militants to decide fate of UN hostages
Updated: 2004-11-18 01:37

A murky Taliban splinter group which has held three UN workers hostage in Afghanistan would be released.

Jaishul Muslimeen (Army of Muslims) militants, who claim to be holding the three and have threatened to kill them, said their tribal council would meet late Wednesday to decide on their fate, a spokesman for the group told the Afghan Islamic Press.

"It is possible to set a new deadline for three hostages and to hold negotiations again. To execute them. Set the trio free. Take decision to free someone among the three," Syed Mohammad Akbar told the private Pakistan-based news agency.

Jaishul Muslimeen, a shadowy breakaway faction of the Taliban rulers who were ousted by a US-led military campaign in 2001, has set and broken a series of deadlines for the government to agree to their demands which include the release of 26 Taliban prisoners.

There was no word on the hostages fate at 9:00pm (0430 GMT) or further statements by the militant group.

There are doubts over whether Jaishul Muslimeen militants are holding the group or whether the hostages have been captured by a criminal gang seeking ransom money, an Afghan government official said on condition of anonymity.

Akbar denied reports that the UN hostages were not being held by Jaish militants.

"These people are still with Jaish," he told AIP.

Annetta Flanigan, Shqipe Hebibi and Angelito Nayan were snatched from busy lunchtime traffic in downtown Kabul on October 28 and had been in Afghanistan working on the country's first presidential election won by President Hamid Karzai.

After their families issued an emotional plea for their release Tuesday, the US military and a spokesman for the NATO -led peacekeeping force here were upbeat on the prospects for the trio's release.

"We continue to remain hopeful that ... the three UN workers abducted in Kabul on the 28th will be released unharmed," US military spokesman Major Scott Nelson told a press briefing.

A spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeeping force here said that there had been success in negotiations between the hostage-takers and Afghan authorities.

"The fact that indicators suggest that these three individuals are still alive, I think is testament to the success that the government and the hostage negotiators have had over the last couple of weeks," Lieutenant Commander Ken MacKillop said.

Sources close the investigation told AFP Tuesday that talks with the hostage-takers were ongoing but that progress was slow.

There had been hopes that the three would be released over the weekend on the Eid-al-Fitr holiday which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, but progress stalled.

Syed Khaled, another spokesman for the hostage takers told AFP earlier this week that comments by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had disrupted talks.

Armitage said negotiating with hostage-takers would only encourage more kidnappings.

The kidnapping is the first of foreign UN or aid workers in Kabul since the Taliban regime collapsed three years ago.

It has raised concerns that Afghanistan could see a repeat of the frequent hostage-takings that have plagued Iraq, where more than 30 foreign hostages have been killed by their captors.

United Nations staff in Kabul are now under strict curfew and are travelling with armed escorts. Many aid agencies have curtailed unnecessary movement of their staff.

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