British woman and two UN colleagues kidnapped in Kabul

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A British woman was among three UN election officials kidnapped in Afghanistan yesterday when gunmen ran their vehicle off the road in Kabul and bundled them into a car.

A British woman was among three UN election officials kidnapped in Afghanistan yesterday when gunmen ran their vehicle off the road in Kabul and bundled them into a car.

Annetta Flanigan, who has extensive experience working in war-torn countries, is in her thirties and holds dual British and Irish nationality.

She was kidnapped with a diplomat from the Philippines and a Kosovo-Albanian woman, a week after an American woman was killed and several Nato peace-keepers were injured in a suicide attack in the city. The attacks have raised the prospect of an exodus of expatriates who are relied on for reconstruction work.

The kidnapping came on the day final of results from a largely peaceful election three weeks ago. The foreigners had been training Afghans to work as election monitors and were expected to fly home within days.

Spokesmen for the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups, including one group called the Jaish-e-Muslimeen, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

The strike was the first time Westerners have been abducted in the city, although embassy warnings of kidnappings had circulated before voting and road engineers have been abducted and then released outside the capital. One analyst said: "This is completely new. It looks like a copycat from Iraq."

The Taliban and their allies had not previously been thought capable of such an operation and observers said that warlords may have masterminded the kidnapping to embarrass the newly elected President, Hamid Karzai.

Speaking in London, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, played down suggestions that the kidnapping might be the start of a new trend. "I have no reason to believe it will be anything other than unusual for the future. I think it will stay unusual," he said.

Ms Flanigan is an experienced election worker who also helped set up elections in Africa. One colleague said: "She is bright, dedicated and professional. Everyone who knows her is really, really shocked."

Her abduction has generated dismay in her home village of Richhill, which is a quiet spot in Co Armagh. Her family is well-known in the village, running the furniture-making business J Flanigan and Son. Ms Flanigan's father died several years ago.

The Rev David Coe, a Church of Ireland rector, said: "Obviously the family is gravely concerned about the situation and what more can you say? The family just want time and space to try and come terms with this."

The kidnappers attacked on a busy Kabul road about 500 metres from a heavily guarded UN compound. They drove a black four-wheel-drive car, with dark windows, which overtook the clearly marked, white UN vehicle and blocked it, forcing the Afghan driver to stop. It was not clear if they had been waiting for the car or whether they had chosen a Western-owned vehicle at random.

A lorry driver, Sher Afghan, saw the abduction from his vehicle. He said: "They beat the driver and pointed guns at the foreigners. One of the women was screaming. She was picked up and thrown into their car."

A huge search was made throughout Kabul; Nato helicopters hovered above the city and road blocks were set up. One British UN official said yesterday: "After the election went so peacefully, foreigners here became complacent. First of all there was the suicide bomb attack, now this."