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Afghanistan: Three UN Hostages Freed

Three foreign UN workers held hostage in Afghanistan for nearly a month were freed early today. The hostages included a woman from Northern Ireland named Annetta Flanigan, an ethnic Albanian woman from Kosovo named Shqipe Hebibi, and Filipino diplomat Angelito Nayan.

Prague, 23 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said the UN workers were "abandoned" by their captors at an unidentified location in Kabul and were found just before dawn today.

"We are pleased to announce that the three UN workers taken hostage 27 days ago have been released safely and are in a secure location," Jalali said. "Results from a preliminary medical examination show that they appear to be in good health."

Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the chief UN spokesman in Afghanistan, said staff at UN offices across the country were "in jubilation" today. He also confirmed that the three were expected to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible after completing further medical examinations at a NATO-run military base.
Their abduction raised fears in Afghanistan's foreign community about copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq.

The neo-Taliban splinter group that claimed responsibility for the kidnappings is Jaysh al-Muslimin (Army of the Muslims). Group leader Akbar Agha had threatened that the hostages would be killed unless neo-Taliban prisoners were released by the Afghan government.

Agha told reporters by telephone today that his group had freed the hostages in exchange for the release of 24 Taliban prisoners.

But Jalali denied that any kind of deal was made with the kidnappers.

"The hostages were released without any ransom or any special deals," Jalali said. "We never accepted the kidnappers' demands. We never gave any money, nor released any prisoners in exchange. The government of Afghanistan and the international community are firm in their resolve to not deal with terrorists."

Jalali also said authorities are still investigating whether Army of the Muslims had any direct involvement in the abductions or had merely claimed responsibility in order to gain international attention.

"Army of the Muslims has openly admitted that they had kidnapped the three UN workers. It is however possible that this group hired criminals or has tried to get the hostages from them and keep them under their own control. I cannot rule out the involvement of [Army of the Muslims]. As I said before, all those who are involved directly or indirectly in this kidnapping, they are criminals and should face justice."

The UN workers were kidnapped at gunpoint from their vehicle in Kabul, just a few hundred meters from their office. They had been helping the Afghan government to run the 9 October presidential election and subsequent vote count.

Their abduction raised fears in Afghanistan's foreign community about copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq. Jalali sought to ease those concerns.

"This was an isolated and an unfortunate incident," Jalali said. "And we hope this will not discourage the resolve of the international community to continue their work to assist the Afghan people in their pursuit of lasting peace and security in our nation."

The United States had warned the Afghan government against making any deals to free the trio, saying such a move would only encourage more kidnappings.

U.S.-led troops searching for the hostages yesterday blasted their way into several houses in Kabul and detained 12 people -- including a doctor working for the United Nations. It was not immediately clear whether those raids resulted in information that had helped with the freeing of the hostages.