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Talks Delayed Again, Kidnappers Say

From Associated Press

Militants threatening to kill three U.N. hostages said Saturday that talks with Afghan and U.N. officials had been postponed for another day.

Authorities have not confirmed any contact with Jaish al Muslimeen, a Taliban splinter group demanding a U.N. pullout from Afghanistan and the release of U.S.-held Taliban prisoners in exchange for the freedom of the hostages.

Syed Khaled, a spokesman for the militants, initially said talks had begun Saturday at a secret location in southern Afghanistan. But he said later that an Afghan government delegation arrived too late.

“Our people thought the talks might continue late into the night, so the two sides agreed to hold them tomorrow,” Khaled said by telephone. “We hope that the Afghan government delegation will be empowered to solve the issue quickly.”

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His claims could not be independently verified.

Annetta Flanigan of Northern Ireland, Angelito Nayan of the Philippines and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo were the first foreigners to be abducted in Kabul since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

The militants released a videotape of the hostages Oct. 31, fueling concern that they were copying the tactics of their Iraqi counterparts. Still, Afghan officials suspect that the little-known group had help from warlord militias or criminal gangs.

The kidnappers have repeatedly extended a deadline after which they said they would decide whether to kill the hostages. The U.S. military has volunteered to help in any rescue and said it was receiving daily government briefings.

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Spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said he couldn’t give details of efforts to free the three “because things are too sensitive now.” But he praised Afghan officials for “doing a good job in trying to get a resolution.”

Karzai and visiting Italian Deputy Prime Minster Gianfranco Fini on Saturday condemned the hostage-taking.

“We will do our best to solve this issue and to bring back the hostages to their families as soon as possible,” Karzai said.

He also received a visit Saturday from Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who pledged to help restore Afghanistan’s war-ravaged economy and help the country fight terrorist groups.

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Musharraf did not mention the hostage crisis directly. His relations with Karzai have been strained by suspicions that Taliban fighters find sanctuary in Pakistan.

“The success of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is Pakistan’s success, and our success in Pakistan will be Afghanistan’s success,” Musharraf said after talks in Karzai’s presidential palace.

“I was telling my brother, there is no doubt in our minds that we both have to succeed,” he said.

As for reconstruction, Musharraf said Pakistan had pledged $100 million for Afghan projects such as road building, and said it was also looking at running power lines and a railway across the border.

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