Militants threatening to kill three UN hostages said Afghan and UN officials met with go-betweens in southern Afghanistan yesterday and suggested their release could be negotiated before the end of the day.
Authorities have not confirmed any contact with Jaish-al Muslimeen, a Taliban splinter group demanding a UN pullout from Afghanistan and the release of Taliban prisoners in return for the hostages.
The UN yesterday expressed growing concern for the well-being of the three election workers, and appealed along with President Hamid Karzai for their release.
Sadir Momin, a purported militant spokesman, said UN and government officials met at a secret location yesterday with two businessmen acting for the kidnappers.
"We are very hopeful that the negotiations will end by this evening," Momin told reporters by telephone. "We are hopeful that the government and the United Nations will accept some of our demands. It is likely that we may have relax some of our conditions."
He said the talks might continue until Monday if a solution cannot be quickly found.
His claims could not be independently verified.
The abduction of Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, Angelito Nayan of the Philippines and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo was the first of foreigners in Kabul since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
The militants released a videotape of the hostages last Sunday, fueling concern that they are copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq.
The group says Flanigan is ailing under the strain of her captivity and that all three are suffering from cold and a diet of little more than cookies.
They have offered no further proof of their condition.
UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the concern of relatives, friends and colleagues was increasing "every day, every hour and every minute that goes by."
If they are suffering, "the best response for their need of medical attention is their immediate release," Almeida e Silva said.
The commander in chief of the Afghan armed forces, Bismillah Khan, also condemned the abduction as "against the culture of Afghanistan," following the lead of political leaders and religious scholars.
The kidnappers have repeatedly extended a deadline after which they said they would decide whether to kill the hostages. They also demand that British troops leave Afghanistan and that the US release Muslim inmates from a US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The US military has volunteered to help in any rescue and said it was receiving daily government briefings.
Spokesman Major Scott Nelson said Saturday that he couldn't give details of efforts to free the three because they were at a "sensitive" stage.
Karzai also renewed his condemnation of the kidnapping on Saturday, when he received a visit from Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf didn't mention the hostage crisis but pledged a common fight against terrorist groups for the two neighboring countries, whose relations have been strained by suspicions that militants find sanctuary in Pakistan.
"The success of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is Pakistan's success, and our success in Pakistan will be Afghanistan's success," Musharraf said.