KABUL, Afghanistan – The United Nations (search) appealed Thursday to the Taliban-linked (search) kidnappers of three of its staff in Afghanistan to release them in time for a Muslim festival starting this weekend.
Militants claiming to hold the three foreigners say the Afghan government has agreed to free 26 of their jailed comrades as part of a prisoner exchange.
However, officials have yet to confirm any deal with the kidnappers, who also say they want to free the hostages by Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan (search).
Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan, British-Irish Annetta Flanigan, and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo were abducted at gunpoint in Kabul on Oct. 28, stirring fear among the capital's 2,000-strong expatriate community that Afghan militants were copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq.
"These are the longest fourteen days in the lives of Lito, Annetta, Shqipe, their families, their friends and their colleagues," U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said. "We hope that the spirit of peace and understanding shown by all during Eid will be extended" to the hostages.
A Taliban spinoff called Jaish-al Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, initially threatened to kill the trio, who helped organize Afghanistan's landmark Oct. 9 election.
But there are signs that a deal is taking shape. Officials familiar with the negotiations say it could include a prisoner release and a ransom.
The group's leader, Akbar Agha, said on Wednesday that it had "been given signals" that the 26 will be freed and urged a swift exchange.
"We want our colleagues holding the hostages to be free to go home for Eid," he said in a telephone call to The Associated Press.
The three-day Eid holiday starts this weekend.
Afghan state television reported late Wednesday that President Hamid Karzai had decreed the release of prisoners for Eid. But there was no indication the release would cover any inmates identified by the hostage-takers.
Beghjet Pacolli, a businessman from Kosovo who has traveled to Kabul to seek Hebibi's release, told AP he also had assurances that a deal was in the offing.
The militants say 15 of the prisoners they want released were seized by American troops near the southern border town of Spin Boldak last month. They claim the others were detained earlier and have been transferred to Guantanamo.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have declined to confirm whether they are holding any of the 26, or if they will release any suspects.
But visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Wednesday there was little room for maneuver.
"It is the United States' view that negotiating with hostage-takers, compromising with hostage-takers only encourages more," Armitage said.