Afghan Kidnappers Ready to Negotiate

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Militants threatening to kill three foreign hostages said Monday they were ready to negotiate with a U.N. envoy, but they warned that any rescue attempt would end in bloodshed and stuck to their demands that the world body withdraw from Afghanistan and that America release its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba.

There was conflicting information on the group's deadline for killing the captives. In separate telephone conversations with The Associated Press, the group's leader set a Wednesday deadline, while a spokesman said it was Friday.

On Sunday, U.N. election workers Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, diplomat Angelito Nayan of the Philippines and Shqipe Habibi of Kosovo appeared in an Iraq-style video, pleading for their freedom.

The Taliban (search) splinter group said Monday the three had been split up and are being held at separate locations.

"That's our strategy," Ishaq Manzoor, a spokesman for the group, told the AP in a satellite telephone call. "If the government and coalition forces find one of them, we will kill the other two."

Unidentified armed men abducted the workers from a U.N. vehicle at gunpoint in the capital Thursday. Government officials says they have had no contact with the kidnappers.

However, the group's leader, Akbar Agha, said Monday that an Afghan businessman had offered to act as a go-between.

"One Afghan trader has approached us on behalf of the United Nations and we have nominated a two-member team for talks with him," Agha told AP in neighboring Pakistan in a separate call. "We have proposed that the meeting should be held in Jalalabad tomorrow."

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva declined to comment on whether any contact had been made.

Manzoor suggested that the group, called Jaish-al Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, would wait until Friday before killing any hostages. The group also insists that Britain withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

But Agha said their demands, which also include the pullout of British forces, had to be met by noon on Wednesday.

"They have until 12 o'clock on Wednesday to fulfill our demands. We want the United Nations to stop interfering in Afghanistan," Agha said.

In the video, the hostages were shown sitting hunched together against the bare wall of a room in an undisclosed location. Both women are crying, but all three look unharmed. The three were in Afghanistan to help manage the Oct. 9 presidential election.

An unseen questioner repeatedly asked them in English why they have come to Afghanistan, then why America and NATO have sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We have nothing to do with America," Nayan said calmly. "We are here for the Afghan people." Habibi explained that she is from Kosovo — the mainly Muslim autonomous region of Serbia — but her abductor seemed unsure where that is.

"It is a Muslim country," she said. "I thought I could help a Muslim country, and I just want to go home and see my brother."

Toward the end of the 15 minute video, obtained by APTN in neighboring Pakistan, the interviewer appeared to ask Flanigan to cry for the camera, to which she replied: "I have cried and cried and I can't cry anymore."

Right before the end of the tape, Nayan asked: "Are we going to be released?"

Hamid Karzai (search), Afghanistan's interim leader, released a statement saying he spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) on Sunday and that they "strongly condemned the hostage situation."

The United Nations expressed relief that the hostages appeared unharmed and appealed for their immediate release. It has said there are no plans to pull staff out of the country, though its foreign workers have been ordered to avoid shops and restaurants and keep a 9 p.m. curfew.

Intelligence officials say Jaish-al Muslimeen emerged about five months ago and carried out minor attacks in southern Afghanistan, including ambushes on fuel trucks supplying American bases.