Friday, November 5, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Militants claiming to hold three U.N. hostages in Afghanistan yesterday postponed a deadline for carrying out their threat to kill the trio, giving officials another day to open negotiations.

The United Nations and the Afghan government have until tonight to open “formal” talks with Jaish-al Muslimeen, said Ishaq Manzoor, who claims to be a spokesman for the shadowy Taliban splinter group.

The militant group had said it would decide by yesterday whether to kill the hostages or allow more time for negotiations.

Manzoor told the Associated Press from an undisclosed location that “some respected people intervened and convinced our leaders to give time to the Afghan government and United Nations” to contact the group.

Manzoor didn’t give further details, and didn’t say what would happen if U.N. and Afghan officials failed to meet today’s deadline.

The group, whose name translates to Army of Muslims, has demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations from Afghanistan and the release of Taliban prisoners from a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and from Afghan jails.

Armed men abducted Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, Angelito Nayan of the Philippines, and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo a week ago in the Afghan capital, Kabul. All three had been helping manage Afghanistan’s Oct. 9 presidential election.

The militant group released a videotape of the hostages Sunday to back its claim of responsibility.

The abductions were the first kidnappings of foreigners in Kabul since the Taliban was ousted in 2001 and sparked concern that militants were copying the tactics of their Iraqi counterparts.

Still, Afghan officials doubt the little-known group could have pulled off the kidnappings without the help of a local militia or criminal gang, and authorities have conducted numerous searches.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva on Thursday expressed growing concern for the well-being of the three captives, and repeated a call for their immediate release.

The militants have backed off a series of deadlines to kill the hostages, saying negotiations are under way. They also have suggested that Mr. Nayan, a Philippine diplomat, might be spared because his country has no troops in Afghanistan.

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