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Afghan militants, government hopeful on hostages
Updated: 2004-11-19 16:07

Militants who claim to be holding three U.N. workers hostage in Afghanistan said on Friday they hoped fresh negotiations would succeed, while the government said it was making gradual progress in efforts to free them.

Habib Noorzad, a member of the leadership council of Taliban splinter faction Jaish-e Muslimeen, said intermediaries had appealed to the group on Thursday not to harm the hostages from Northern Ireland, Kosovo and the Philippines.

"Negotiations are under way and we are still hopeful they will succeed," he said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

"We still hope our 26 jailed Taliban will be released and in exchange we will free the hostages," he said.

Noorzad said the intermediaries had said they would deliver "an important message" on Friday, but he did not elaborate.

Government spokesman Jawed Ludin said progress to free the hostages was being made "slowly but gradually".

"Day by day there is progress being made and we have reason to be optimistic," he said, although he declined to give details.

The U.N. workers -- Annetta Flanigan from Northern Ireland, Kosovan Shqipe Hebibi and Filipino diplomat Angelito Nayan -- were abducted by gunmen in Kabul on Oct. 28 after helping run presidential elections won by U.S.-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai.

There has been confusion over who is holding the trio since the government said on Wednesday it did not believe they were with Jaish-e Muslimeen ((Army of Muslims), which has threatened to kill them unless Taliban prisoners are freed.

Jaish insists it has the hostages and said it had allowed Flanigan to phone her husband on Thursday to prove she was alive.

The United Nations declined to comment on the report, sticking to a policy of not commenting on the behind-the-scenes efforts to free the three workers.

The phone call, if made, would have been the first direct news from any of the hostages since the Kosovo woman and the Filipino man were allowed to phone home early last week.

The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday the hostages were probably being held by a criminal gang in Kabul or its vicinity, but the kidnappers could be in contact with the Jaish militants.

Diplomats and security sources have speculated that Jaish may have paid another group to carry out the abduction and be able to give instructions to those who are holding them.

Some diplomats have speculated that the kidnapping could have been the work of militiamen loyal to a rival of Karzai, disgruntled by the outcome of the Oct. 9 election, who have tried to profit from the abductions.

Authorities have been considering offering ransom for the three, but Jaish has said it would not accept that.

The group has repeatedly threatened to kill the hostages but has allowed successive deadlines to pass without apparent incident.

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