11/23/2004, 00.00
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Hostages "freed" in Afghanistan

Kabul (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Three U.N. workers kidnapped in Afghanistan have been released unharmed after nearly four weeks in captivity, officials said Tuesday. "They are out," U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said. Armed men seized Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan, British-Irish citizen Annetta Flanigan and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo on Oct. 28, the first abduction of foreigners in the Afghan capital since the Taliban felt three years ago.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said the trio were "abandoned in one location inside Kabul" around 6 a.m. Tuesday.  Jalali said discussions had been held with the kidnappers, whom he declined to identify, but insisted no deal was done and that the releases were unconditional. Afghan officials have said they believe a criminal gang carried out the abductions, and have said that negotiations centred on a ransom demand. Akbar Agha, leader of the Jaish-e Muslimeen (Army of Muslims) group, that had claimed to be holding the hostages, said that the trio had been released in exchange for 24 Taliban prisoners. His claims could not be verified. The Taliban splinter faction, Army of Muslims, had demanded that Afghan and U.S. authorities free jailed comrades. "I cannot say they were not involved," Jalali said. On Monday, U.S.-led troops searching for the hostages blasted their way into several compounds in Kabul and detained 12 people, but it was unclear if the raids had helped rescue the hostages.

A spokesman for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said: "There has been no payment of ransom". "We appreciate the efforts of the United Nations as well as the Afghan government," Silvestre Afable said. He also insisted there was no prisoner-for-hostage exchange.

Almeida e Silva declined to elaborate on how the three were released. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hailed the releases as a "major defeat to terrorists who wanted to export an Iraq-style of hostage-taking in Afghanistan." He said the Afghan government, people, the United Nations, as well as NATO peacekeepers and U.S.-led coalition forces had worked together to bring about the releases, sending "an important message to those who wish disrupt the new Afghan democracy

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