Afghan Taleban say foreign captives are well

KABUL (AFP) - The Taleban said on Tuesday that a group of overseas captives had been moved to a "safe area" following the largest abduction of foreigners in six years, highlighting Afghanistan's insecurity as Nato troops prepare to leave.

Afghan security forces were hunting for the group of eight Turks, a Russian, a Kyrgyz man and an Afghan, all seized after their helicopter made a forced landing on Sunday in a rugged district part-controlled by the insurgents.

"They have been moved to a safe area, they have no health problem and they are fine. They are inside Afghanistan," Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP by phone from an undisclosed location.

The Mi-8 helicopter, carrying Turkish road engineers and with a Russian and Kyrgyz crew, landed in the Azra district of Logar province south of Kabul, not far from the border with Pakistan where the Taleban have rear bases.

Asked what would happen to the group, Mujahid said: "The Taleban leadership will decide." The helicopter took off from Khost province on Sunday afternoon and was headed for Kabul when bad weather forced it to land.

The Taleban on Monday claimed that nine of the group were Americans and two were Afghan interpreters, but on Tuesday appeared to back away from that assertion.

"We are still receiving information but initial information obtained from our mujahideen (holy warriors) said that they were American," the spokesman said. "We will have to wait for more information."

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a search for the group had begun but declined to give details for security reasons.

"The incident is being investigated and we will make sure that they are safely freed," he said.

A government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that authorities are trying to get tribal elders to negotiate with the Taleban, in preference to mounting a major military operation.

A Logar provincial government spokesman, Din Mohammad Darvish, also said the focus was on talks.

"The area is sealed off by security forces to prevent them moving out the hostages," Darvish told AFP. "Efforts are underway to solve this through elders."