Afghan officials are optimistic that three U.N. hostages in the capital will be freed unharmed, a government spokesman said Tuesday, though there was no evidence of any contact with the kidnappers.
The Taliban splinter group that has claimed responsibility for abducting the trio in the Afghan capital last Thursday repeated its threat to kill them — but said it might ease its demand for the United Nations and British troops to leave Afghanistan.
Jaish-al Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, released a videotape on Sunday showing the frightened captives — Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, Filipino diplomat Angelito Nayan and Shqipe Habibi of Kosovo — and mimicking the tactics of insurgents in Iraq.
However, several Afghan officials say they suspect that warlords or criminal groups were also involved in the bold daylight snatch and that the hostages may still be in the Kabul area.
"So far, we've not been informed of any contacts with the kidnappers," said Latfullah Mashal, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry. "But we're progressing and hopeful that the hostages will be released safely."
He said the ministry, whose security forces are leading the search, had undertaken unspecified initiatives which were "going well." He declined to elaborate.
The militants say that they have divided up the hostages to thwart any rescue attempt. They also say they are ready to discuss their demands, which also include the release of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ishaq Manzoor, who claims to speak for Jaish-ul Muslimeen, said Tuesday that it would be "flexible" about its demands if the government or the United Nations also gave ground.
In a satellite telephone call to The Associated Press, he insisted talks were "ongoing" via an intermediary, and suggested "a few days more" could be allowed beyond a Wednesday deadline if negotiations progress.
"If they don't accept our demands, we will have no choice — we will kill them," he said.
U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said he couldn't comment on any contact because it could jeopardize efforts to free the hostages.
An urgent search operation involving NATO and U.S. troops as well as Afghan security forces has focused on Kabul and the Paghman valley to the west.
The hostage-takers have said only that the trio are still in Afghanistan, but have issued a string of warnings to authorities to back off.
"If the government and coalition forces find one of them, we will kill the other two," Manzoor said.
In Manila, a brother of the kidnapped Philippine diplomat, appealed for his release "in Allah's name and in the spirit of Ramadan," the holy Muslim month.
"He is a very good man with a high regard for our Muslim brothers and sisters here in the Philippines and throughout the world," Bernard Nayan said in a statement. "He has never been involved in politics. He only wants to help others."
In July, Manila withdrew a small peacekeeping force from Iraq to save the life of a kidnapped Filipino truck driver. It has no forces in Afghanistan.
All three hostages were in Afghanistan to help manage its Oct. 9 presidential election.
U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai secured a majority of the votes, but is still awaiting official confirmation of the result, expected in the next few days.
By Stephen Graham