KABUL, Afghanistan — Three U.N. workers kidnapped in Afghanistan were released unharmed late Monday after more than three weeks in captivity, officials said.
"They are out," U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said today.
Armed men seized Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan, British-Irish citizen Annetta Flanigan and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo in Kabul on Oct. 28, the first such abduction in the Afghan capital since the Taliban regime was ousted three years ago.
Officials said the three had undergone medical examinations at a NATO field hospital in Kabul that showed all were in good health.
The hostage-takers were initially described as members of a Taliban faction or splinter group, and they reportedly had demanded the release of at least two dozen alleged Taliban prisoners in Afghan and U.S. custody.
But recently, Afghan officials said that they believed a criminal gang carried out the abductions and that negotiations centered on a ransom demand.
A spokesman for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had followed the situation closely, denied that any money was exchanged. "There has been no payment of ransom," Silvestre Afable said.
It was unclear early today whether any prisoners were released to secure the hostages' freedom.
Syed Khalid, a spokesman for Jaish al Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, said his group had freed the hostages overnight with an "assurance that the release of our 24 people would begin today."
His claims could not be verified. Afable insisted there was no prisoner-for-hostage exchange.
American officials had warned against negotiating with the kidnappers, fearing that a deal could encourage more abductions.
De Almeida e Silva declined to elaborate on how the three were released, saying the Afghan interior minister would provide details at a news conference today.
News of the release came hours after U.S. and Afghan forces raided two houses in downtown Kabul on Monday and detained 10 people suspected of being connected with the abductions.
Most of the detainees were released after being questioned, an Afghan intelligence official said. It was also unknown if any of the hostage-takers had been captured.