Three UN hostages freed in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

A British hostage and her two United Nations colleagues were freed, unharmed, in Kabul yesterday after 27 days in captivity. Annetta Flanigan from County Armagh, who has dual British and Irish nationality, was seized by armed men on 28 October in Kabul along with her fellow election workers, Angelito Nayan, a Philippines diplomat, and a Kosovan, Shiqipe Hebibe.

A British hostage and her two United Nations colleagues were freed, unharmed, in Kabul yesterday after 27 days in captivity. Annetta Flanigan from County Armagh, who has dual British and Irish nationality, was seized by armed men on 28 October in Kabul along with her fellow election workers, Angelito Nayan, a Philippines diplomat, and a Kosovan, Shiqipe Hebibe.

While confusion surrounded the precise circumstances of the release of the three hostages, the family of Ms Flanigan described their joy and relief at the end of their kidnapping ordeal

Ms Flanigan, a 43-year-old election official, was reunited in Kabul with her husband, Jose Aranaz, a Spanish lawyer who also works for the UN, before making an emotional phone call to her family in the village of Richhill in Co Armagh.

"We are absolutely overjoyed," said her brother, Andrew. "After all the terrible anxiety of the last 27 days it is an incredible relief to know that Annetta is safe and well."

Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a UN spokesman, described how the hostages were in good health and good spirits, adding: "We are very, very happy and very relieved."

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, also expressed delight and praised the three for helping build democracy. The US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, hailed the releases as a "major defeat for terrorists who wanted to export an Iraq-style of hostage-taking in Afghanistan".

But the sense of relief was marred by claims that Afghan security forces had tortured one suspected kidnapper to death and killed another in a raid. The brutal tactics which appeared to have forced the kidnap gang to give up their hostages were questioned by the British embassy in Kabul and UN officials who called for an investigation into the prisoner's death.

Afghan human rights campaigners demanded thatthe leader of the anti-terrorist department be prosecuted.

The end of the hostage's 27-day captivity was murky even by Kabul's standards, with numerous questions unanswered by official accounts.

After the hostages turned up in the capital yesterday, Afghan officials vowed to hunt down remaining gang members.

They insisted that no ransom had been paid by any party and no government prisoners had been released, as the kidnappers had demanded. A wealthy Kosovan businessman, related to one of the hostages and who had spent weeks negotiating with the kidnappers, also claimed that no money had been paid.

The circumstances of the release were extraordinary. The hostages apparently drove themselves to freedom in a borrowed car after kidnappers let them go on the outskirts of Kabul at 6am.

The release came just hours after a series of raids targeting the kidnap gang by American troops and Afghan personnel.

Many in Kabul speculated that disgruntled warlords may have become involved. The three hostages had been working on last month's election.

The Interior Minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, said he could not yet disclose the identities of the kidnappers, whom he called "criminals" and "unIslamic". Sources in Kabul claimed that Afghan intelligence chiefs had known who was responsible within hours of the highly professional abduction.

But concerns lingered over apparently brutal methods used by the security forces. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said it believed that an armed robber, called Kajkoal, had died after being tortured. Officials have launched an investigation and said they believe he may have died of a heart attack. The commission's own investigation found he had a broken leg, his toenails and fingernails had been torn out and he was covered in bruises.

According to a Kabul security source, the hostages were released early yesterday morning and drove themselves to a UN friend's house which had been abandoned. The source said: "They panicked because they thought the UN had evacuated Kabul. But after driving around for a while they encountered a UN vehicle and were taken to a UN compound."

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