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Afghan Kidnappers Mull Fate of UN Hostages

Afghan kidnappers holding three foreign United Nations workers hostage say they are now considering whether to kill, hold or release their captives. The Afghan government is hopeful the hostages will be freed, but is keeping quiet about reported negotiations.

Several leaders of the Jaish-e Muslimeen, or Muslim Army, say they may soon decide to execute the three foreign U.N. workers, but could also keep them captive for months or even years.

In shifting statements to international news organizations, the kidnappers say negotiations for the hostages' release are now focused on the freeing of 26 fighters loyal to Afghanistan's former Taleban regime, who are now imprisoned in the country.

The kidnappers had originally also demanded the pull-out of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and the release of Taleban prisoners in U.S. custody.

But earlier this month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Washington would stick to its policy of not negotiating with kidnappers, and recent Jaish-e Muslimeen statements have not reiterated demands on the United States.

The kidnappers have repeatedly set and then canceled deadlines for their conditions to be met.

The hostages - a Kosovar woman, an Irish-British woman and a Filipino man - had been helping organize Afghan elections when they were taken from their car at gunpoint last month.

Speaking Tuesday, Afghan presidential spokesman Javid Luddin said he could not offer details of the government's efforts to free the hostages but said he was generally optimistic.

"We continue to be hopeful that we can do that. However, I think we have to all wait and see how this unfolds."

The abduction has caused concern among international relief organizations across Afghanistan.

The non-profit International Rescue Committee's Mideast and Asia director, Mark Bartolini, says aid agencies are all taking new security measures.

"I think it's fair to say that all organizations are reacting to that in some form or another," he said.

He says that despite the kidnapping, safety conditions in Afghanistan are much the same as they were before last month's presidential election.

"Well, I don't know that I would go so far as to say [the situation is] getting better, but it isn't getting any worse, which in itself is a good thing," he said.

He says security will remain a concern in the run-up to Afghanistan's first post-war legislative elections, scheduled for March or April.