Three U.N. workers kidnapped in Afghanistan are in the hands of criminals, not the Taliban-linked militants who have threatened to kill them, an Afghan official said Wednesday.

Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan (search), British-Irish citizen Annetta Flanigan (search) and Shqipe Hebibi (search) of Kosovo were seized at gunpoint on Oct. 28 in Kabul after helping organize the country's presidential election.

A little-known rebel group called Jaish-al Muslimeen (search), or Army of Muslims, on Wednesday repeated its demand for the release of jailed comrades in return for sparing their lives.

But a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, which is leading the search for the trio, said it believed that the group was "not holding the hostages."

"The kidnappers are armed robbers, not Jaish-al Muslimeen," Latfullah Mashal told The Associated Press. "We can say they are thieves."

Mashal said authorities believed that Jaish-al Muslimeen had paid the real kidnappers for a video recording of the hostages, which it used to bolster its claim of responsibility and stir fear that the group was copying the brutal tactics of Iraqi insurgents.

The spokesman said he had no information on any negotiations between the Afghan government and the kidnappers, whom he didn't identify. However, Afghan officials have told AP that talks through intermediaries are snagged on ransom demands.

Security forces were continuing to monitor traffic in the Kabul area to prevent the kidnappers from moving the hostages to a more remote area, Mashal said.

"We don't have a specific clue on where they are being kept," he said.

Syed Khaled, a spokesman for Jaish-al Muslimeen, insisted Wednesday that its leaders were meeting to discuss what to do with the trio.

"The council will decide whether to hand over the hostages to the military men who decide their final fate," Khaled told the AP in a telephone call.

"When we are holding the people, how can others hold talks with the Afghan government?" he said.

The passage of several deadlines set by the militants for the release of 26 jailed comrades — some from U.S. custody — has already cast doubt on their control of the hostages. The American military has ruled out freeing any prisoners.

However, it is unclear whether a criminal group would be less likely to harm the hostages, who have now been in captivity for almost three weeks.

Families and friends of the hostages appealed Tuesday for their release in the spirit of Eid al-Fitr (search), the Islamic festival that ended in Afghanistan on Monday.

"We dearly hope that the people holding Angelito, Annetta and Shqipe will demonstrate that honor at this holy time and place them somewhere safe where they can be found and restored to us," their statement said.