A militant group threatening to kill three UN hostages said yesterday it was in talks with the Afghan government about the group's demand that Taliban prisoners be released.
A week after the abduction of Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, Filipino Angelito Nayan and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo, the militants set no new deadline for an agreement on their conditions, which also include a UN withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Syed Khaled, a spokesman for Jaish-al Muslimeen, told reporters that UN and Afghan officials had contacted them late Wednesday and asked for more time for talks.
"The government said they would think about releasing those Taliban held in Afghan prisons and discuss the prisoners held by the Americans," Khaled said in a satellite telephone call.
An obscure spinoff of Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime, Jaish-al Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and on Sunday released a videotape of the hostages in a sinister echo of the insurgency in Iraq.
Afghan officials suspect that warlords or criminal gangs were also involved in the abduction and have launched a search operation in the capital and surrounding countryside.
Authorities say they are hopeful the three will be released. But there has been no confirmation of any contact with the kidnappers, and officials have appealed to ordinary Afghans to provide information.
UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva yesterday thanked the government for its efforts. He said the world body was "doing all it can" in support, but gave no details.
He also said UN staff had been warmed by messages of support, including a statement on Tuesday by the Council of Ulema, or religious scholars, which said the kidnappings "defame Islam."
"However, we are increasingly worried about Shqipe, Lito and Annetta," Almeida e Silva said. "The psychological pressure must be tremendous, not knowing what will happen from one day to the next ... we ask those holding them to release them immediately and unharmed."
The militants have backed off a series of deadlines to kill the three hostages, claiming negotiations are under way. They also have suggested that Nayan, a Philippine diplomat, might be spared because his country has no troops in Afghanistan.
All three hostages were helping manage Afghanistan's Oct. 9 presidential election, whose result was officially confirmed on Wednesday.
The hostage-taking cast a shadow over the ceremony as US-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai was officially declared Afghanistan's first-ever popularly elected president.
"It has saddened all the electoral staff and the nation of Afghanistan," electoral board chairman Zakim Shah said, appealing for the swift release of the victims "to put an end to this suffering during what should be a time of national celebration."
Meanwhile, two improvised bombs exploded near US and Swedish aid agency offices in Afghanistan's restive east but no-one was injured, a US military spokesman said yesterday.
The two home-made bombs blew up around 9pm on Wednesday in the eastern city Jalalabad near compounds housing USAID, Washington's overseas aid wing, and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, US Major Mark McCann said.
The two bombs, both with timers attached, exploded several minutes apart, an employee of the Swedish organization Rahman Jul Rahmani said.