KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban-linked militants holding
three kidnapped U.N. workers demanded yesterday the release of 26
prisoners, some possibly in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, in
return for sparing the hostages’ lives.

The group also said it might ease its other demands to end a
crisis that has stirred fear that Afghan insurgents are learning
from their Iraqi counterparts.

Ishaq Manzoor, one of several men claiming to speak for the
kidnappers, told The Associated Press that a list of the 26 was
handed to Afghan officials during talks at a secret location
yesterday afternoon.

A government delegation asked for two days to look for the
prisoners and find out whether they are in Afghanistan or outside,
and if they are in Afghanistan where they are being held, Manzoor
said in a telephone call.

The talks could resume tomorrow, he said.

Kabul has secured the release of several foreign hostages during
the past year, using tribal chiefs and former militant leaders for
behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Last November, a Turkish engineer was freed after a month in
captivity following the release of two Taliban prisoners. Kabul
denied any link and insisted no ransom was paid.

This time, the United Nations and the Afghan government have
been tight-lipped on any contact with the kidnappers, though
officials insist they are making progress.

Another spokesman for the Jaish-al Muslimeen, or Army of
Muslims, said the group was “hopeful that the government and
the United Nations will accept some of our demands. It is likely
that we may relax some of our conditions.”

Manzoor didn’t identify any of the prisoners the group
wanted released, but the group has said previously that some of
them may be in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or at U.S. and
Afghan jails in Afghanistan.

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