Afghan group threatens to kill 3 U.N. hostages

Foreign elections workers to die if Taliban prisoners aren't freed, militants say


KABUL, Afghanistan - A militant group claiming to have kidnapped three foreign election workers in Afghanistan told news agencies yesterday that the hostages would be killed unless all Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were released.

The group also called for international and Afghan forces hunting for the kidnappers to stop their pursuit, repeating a threat to kill the hostages if the pursuit continued.

Akbar Agha, the leader of the Jaish-e-Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, a breakaway Taliban group, made the demand in phone calls to correspondents from the BBC and Reuters in Pakistan.

It is the first time the group, which claimed responsibility for the abduction of the three foreigners from a busy street in Kabul on Thursday, has announced any conditions.

The militants have yet to produce any proof that they are holding the hostages - a Filipino diplomat, Angelito Nayan; Shqipe Habibi, from Kosovo; and Annetta Flanigan, from Northern Ireland.

The three were working for the United Nations during the Afghan elections - but the militants gave out what they said were ID numbers of two of the hostages.

A U.N. spokesman in Kabul refused to comment on the kidnappings. It was not immediately clear whether the numbers matched any cards or identification held by the hostages.

Another caller, Es Haq Manzoor, who says he is the spokesman for the group, made the same demands to the Associated Press.

"If these countries don't agree to our demands, we will do the same thing as the mujahedeen are doing in Iraq," he said.

He also said that a video recording of the hostages would be released in two or three days to an Arab television channel.

How the group, which has only carried out minor attacks in the past, managed such a bold kidnapping in broad daylight in the capital remains a mystery.

The gunmen, driving a black SUV with darkened windows, as many police and military officials and foreign intelligence agents use, appear to have made a clean getaway.

Police officials said they had nothing new to report since the arrest of three men soon after the abduction. The men were denying any connection to the kidnapping.

The police say they have not ruled out that a criminal gang or an irregular militia, both of which are numerous in and around Kabul, could have been behind the abduction.

The American-led coalition troops and NATO peacekeeping troops from the International Security Assistance Force were helping in the search for the kidnappers.

The U.S. military appealed for anyone with information about the abduction to contact the authorities. A spokesman for the peacekeeping force tried to play down the incident. "We should remember that this is a unique event," Lt. Col. Patrick Poulain said at a news conference yesterday.

"We all need to be vigilant," he said, "especially if we are to help find the kidnappers, but ISAF does not believe this is an indicator of a worsening security situation."

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