3 foreigners abducted in Afghanistan

Taliban-linked group claims responsibility for seizing election workers


KABUL, Afghanistan - Gunmen abducted three foreign election workers yesterday afternoon on a busy street in the capital.

It was the first kidnapping of foreigners in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban three years ago and raised fears that militant groups in Afghanistan might be borrowing a favored tactic of insurgents in Iraq.

Jaish-e-Muslimeen (Army of Muslims), a group linked to the Taliban, claimed responsibility for kidnapping the foreigners in telephone calls to bureaus of the Reuters news agency and the Al-Jazeera television network in neighboring Pakistan.

The caller, who gave his name as Mullah Ishaq Manzoor and described himself as a commander, said his forces had carried out the abduction. "The three foreigners have been kidnapped by us," he told Reuters by satellite telephone. "We are taking them to some safe place outside Kabul." Al-Jazeera quoted him as saying that the group's council was meeting to decide the fate of the hostages.

As of late yesterday, no conditions had been set for the captives' release.

Afghan police said they tracked the gunmen's black Toyota SUV to an area west of Kabul and that by yesterday afternoon they had surrounded an area and begun a search.

NATO helicopters circled over the city dropping anti-rocket flares, and armored vehicles were sent to street corners.

"It is possible they are armed thieves, and it is possible they are terrorists," said Lutfullah Mashal, an Interior Ministry spokesman. `'The police are taking firm control of an area west of Kabul, and we hope to arrest them as soon as possible and release those abducted."

The three foreigners - a Filipino man, a Kosovo Albanian woman and a woman from Northern Ireland - were working for the Joint Election Management Board, the United Nations-Afghan election agency, which organized Afghanistan's first presidential elections Oct. 9.

The board recently announced that it had finished two weeks of counting votes and that about 100,000 ballots being investigated for possible fraud would not change the overall result. President Hamid Karzai holds a commanding lead with 55.4 percent of the vote, about 39 percentage points more than his nearest rival, former Education Minister Muhammad Yunus Qanooni.

The election was held under heavy security, and there was relatively little violence, although attacks by suspected Taliban, in particular roadside explosions, have flared since.

The three election workers were seized from their car at gunpoint just before 1 p.m. close to the compound where they worked in western Kabul. Three or four men with assault rifles overtook their car and forced it to a stop, said a truck driver, Ruhullah, 29, who was unloading cement by the side of the road and witnessed the kidnapping.

"They punched the driver twice and then pulled the women out, throwing them over their shoulders and carrying them to their own car," he said. The third foreigner, a man, struggled as he was taken by the gunmen to the car, he said.

The kidnappers fled into a maze of busy streets.

"They escaped toward the west side of Kabul, towards Araghandeh and Paghman, then the car disappeared into the villages west of Kabul," Mashal said. `'Many troops from the national police are surrounding the area where they probably are."

"The car had black windows, and still we cannot say if they are linked with terrorist groups. But whoever they are, they are the enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan, and they are people who do not see benefit for themselves in peace," he said.

In Manila, the Philippines Foreign Affairs office said Angelito Nayan, a foreign service officer attached to the U.N. electoral agency, had been taken captive, Reuters reported.

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, confirmed that a woman with dual British-Irish citizenship was among the three kidnapped, Agence France-Presse reported.

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