Declan Walsh in Islamabad
Monday November 1, 2004
Three United Nations workers, held hostage and pictured in a video released yesterday, will be executed on Wednesday unless British forces leave Afghanistan and Muslim prisoners are released from Guant¨¢namo Bay, their Taliban kidnappers demanded yesterday.
In a video released to al-Jazeera, Annetta Flanigan, from Northern Ireland, Angelito Nayan, a Filipino diplomat, and Shqipe Habibi, a Kosovan election worker, appear frightened but are apparently unharmed.
The officials, who helped organise last month's presidential election, were snatched from their vehicle in daylight on Thursday.
They plead for their release during the 15-minute tape, during which an off-camera hostage taker - a member of the Taliban splinter group Jaish-e-Muslimeen (Army of Islam) - tries to reassure them in broken English.
"Don't cry. Why you cry?" he asks a visibly upset Ms Flanigan. But the questioner mostly asks sharp questions about American and Nato involvement in Afghanistan. "We have nothing to do with America," Mr Nayan replies. "We are here for the Afghan people".
All Muslim prisoners in Afghanistan and Guant¨¢namo Bay must be released "be they Taliban or al-Qaida", said militant leader Mullah Sayed Akbar Agha. The UN must close its offices in Afghanistan and condemn "illegal" military operations by "meddling" British and American forces.
And countries offering non-military assistance, such as the Philippines, must also leave.
Failure to start releasing the prisoners by noon on Wednesday would result in the three being executed "in such a way by which Muslims will be happy", he told Reuters.
UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva confirmed the identity of his three colleagues.
"We are relieved that they appear to be unharmed," he said. "We call for their safe and immediate release."
The kidnapping, the first in Kabul, has stoked fears that Islamic militants are copying Iraqi tactics to derail Afghanistan's fragile democratic transition.
The Nato-led hunt for the kidnappers has focused on Paghman, a scenic but bandit-ridden district north-west of Kabul. The area is also associated with the Hizb-e-Islami faction of former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Jaish-e-Muslimeen emerged last August after a rift in the Taliban leadership between the leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and some lieutenants. The dissidents broke away after a two-week meeting of Taliban military commanders in southern Afghanistan.
"Our aim is jihad. There will be no let-up in our jihadi activities while American forces remain in Afghanistan," a spokesman said at the time.
The leader, Mullah Agha, is reportedly 45 years old and from Kandahar, which was also home to Mullah Omar.
Although the dissidents claimed they had attracted one third of the Taliban's leadership, military sources put their number at just a few dozen.
A month later, the group claimed responsibility for the beheading of three Afghan soldiers abducted from a taxi in Zabul province.
The US military seized on the split - and the Taliban's failure to disrupt the October 9 election - as a sign that the insurgents' strength was waning.
But this abduction, a week after a suicide bomber killed two on a busy Kabul shopping street, suggests that the militants are adopting new and increasingly ruthless tactics.
Fundamentalist propaganda calling on Afghans to follow the example of Islamic militants in Iraq, some specifying the beheading of hostages, has been circulating in the country for some months.
Ms Flanigan's value as a hostage could be higher because her husband, Jos¨¦ Mar¨ªa Aranaz, a Spanish lawyer, is one of five UN appointees on the national election board.
Foreign aid workers evacuated for the election had begun to return when the kidnapping occurred, said Nick Downie of the aid agency security body Anso.
Its outcome will have a major impact on future aid operations, he predicted.
"If the worst happens, you're going to see a significant number of people getting the hell out of here," he said.