KABUL, Afghanistan – Armed men in military uniforms stopped a U.N. vehicle in Kabul (search) on Thursday, beating the driver and abducting three foreigners in Afghanistan to help oversee landmark presidential elections.
The daylight kidnapping followed warnings that Taliban (search) militants could target foreigners in an echo of the brutal insurgency roiling Iraq. It came less than a week after a suicide attack killed an American translator in Kabul.
Two of the kidnap victims were women: one with joint British-Irish nationality, and another from Kosovo. The third was a male diplomat from the Philippines. All work for Afghanistan's U.N.-sponsored election body.
A man claiming to speak for a Taliban splinter group, Jamiat Jaish-al Muslimeen, said it was responsible. The veracity of the claim could not be verified.
After the kidnapping, Afghan forces mounted roadblocks inside and outside of Kabul, as NATO helicopters searched for clues from the sky.
Norwegian armored vehicles briefly sealed off a street in the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. Police said NATO troops searched about a dozen houses before pulling out. Reporters also saw U.S. troops checking vehicles leaving the city on the main road to the west.
The American military was ready to help "locate and if need be to rescue these individuals when they are found," spokesman Maj. Mark McCann said.
Afghan and U.N. officials said the three were stopped and abducted by about five gunmen.
An Interior Ministry official said the Afghan driver, who was beaten and left behind, told investigators a black four-wheel-drive vehicle with tinted windows pulled in sharply in front of the U.N. car.
Several uniformed men got out and accused the driver of cutting them off at the previous corner, the official said. They then forced the foreigners into their car, which turned around and drove off. The driver was beaten, the official said.
U.N. security staff found the abandoned white vehicle, clearly marked with the world body's initials, about a half-mile from an election office. The car had its doors locked and there was no sign of a struggle.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan "learned with deep regret and dismay" about the kidnapping, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York. "The United Nations is in close contact with the authorities and is hoping for the staff members' immediate and unconditional release," he said.
The Irish government identified one of the three as Annetta Flanigan. "I condemn unreservedly this kidnapping and call for the immediate and unconditional release of those taken," Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said.
In Manila, a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs identified the abducted Filipino as Angelito Nayan, a foreign service officer seconded to the U.N. electoral effort.
U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the third person was a woman from Kosovo.
Ishaq Manzoor, who claimed to speak for Jamiat Jaish-al Muslimeen, said the three had been taken to a "safe place."
"We are checking their identities and we will demand that if their countries have forces in Afghanistan they should withdraw them," he told The Associated Press in Pakistan, speaking in a satellite telephone call from an unknown place.
Suspected Taliban rebels have kidnapped foreigners on several occasions during the past year, but never in the capital.
In March, a Turkish engineer was shot dead and another abducted along the main Kabul-Kandahar highway. The survivor was released unharmed after three months.
Concern about militant attacks on foreigners peaked in the run-up to the Oct. 9 presidential vote, when the U.S. Embassy issued a warning that kidnappings might be attempted.
About 1,000 people have died in political violence in Afghanistan this year, including more than 30 American soldiers. Still, it has not involved abductions or suicide attacks of the intensity seen in Iraq.
While a string of bombings and shootings killed at least a dozen election workers ahead of the vote, polling day passed relatively peacefully.
U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai has secured 55 percent of the about 8.2 million votes cast. The official results are expected at the weekend, and Karzai should be sworn in late next month.
Still, optimism that the militants were a fading force was dampened Saturday when a suicide attacker armed with grenades killed an American woman and an Afghan teenager and wounded three NATO soldiers in a downtown shopping area.