KABUL, Afghanistan – A Taliban splinter group threatening to kill three foreign U.N. hostages said Tuesday there was "some flexibility" about their demands, which include the world body's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Government officials were optimistic the Iraq-style abduction could end with the foreigners' release but said they had no contact with the kidnappers one day before a deadline on the hostages' fate.
Jaish-al Muslimeen (search), or Army of Muslims, claimed it abducted Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, Filipino diplomat Angelito Nayan and Shqipe Habibi of Kosovo in the Afghan capital Thursday.
All three hostages were in the country to help manage its Oct. 9 presidential election, apparently won by U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai (search).
Jaish-al Muslimeen released a videotape Sunday showing the frightened captives pleading for their freedom. The group suggested it would start killing the captives Wednesday if its demands were not met.
Besides demanding a U.N. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Jaish-al Muslimeen also sought the pullout of British troops and the release of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners from U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ishaq Manzoor, a purported group leader, told The Associated Press that talks with authorities were underway via intermediaries.
"If the government and the U.N. accept some of our demands, it is possible we will show some flexibility," Manzoor said in a satellite telephone call.
Asked about the Wednesday noon deadline set by the group, Manzoor said: "If these talks need more time, our shura [council] has given permission to allow a few days more ... If they don't accept our demands, we will have no choice. We will kill them."
U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva refused to discuss any negotiations, saying it could endanger efforts to free the hostages. The world body has said there are no plans to pull staff out of Afghanistan.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal said the ministry had "not been informed" of any contacts with the kidnappers. However, the ministry, whose security forces were leading the search for the hostages, had undertaken unspecified initiatives that were "going well," he said.
"We're progressing and hopeful that the hostages will be released safely," Mashal said without elaborating.
Afghan forces, backed up by NATO troops, have focused their search in Kabul and neighboring Paghman valley, the fiefdom of Islamist strongman Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (search).
In Manila, a brother of kidnapped Philippine diplomat Nayan appealed for his release "in Allah's name and in the spirit of Ramadan," the Muslim holy 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.