Gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped three foreign U.N. election workers in a daylight attack in one of the capital's most affluent and heavily guarded areas. The kidnappings, coming five days after a suicide bomber killed two people, including an American woman, on a busy commercial street, raised fears that Kabul could face a new round of violence aimed at Westerners.
U.N. and Afghan officials said the kidnappers, who drove a black jeep and brandished AK-47 assault rifles, forced a clearly marked U.N. four-wheel-drive vehicle off the road in the Karte Parwan district, not far from a regional office of the Joint Electoral Management Body, which supervised the country's Oct. 9 presidential election. The assailants beat up the vehicle's Afghan driver, then kidnapped the three U.N. workers -- identified only as a Filipino man and women from Kosovo and Northern Ireland.
A group called the Jaish-e-Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, identified as a breakaway Taliban faction, asserted responsibility for the kidnapping in a telephone call to the Reuters news agency. "The three foreigners have been kidnapped by us. We're taking them to some safe place outside Kabul," Reuters quoted the group's commander, Ishaq Manzoor, as saying. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
While investigators said it was unclear if the three were targeted because they were foreigners or because they were working on the election, several analysts here -- including a colleague of the kidnapped workers -- suggested they were deliberately selected as a way to disrupt the electoral process by delaying an announcement of the outcome.
One of the three, the woman from Northern Ireland, was involved in handling complaints of fraud, and a co-worker said her kidnapping could indefinitely postpone a planned announcement, which was expected to certify that, despite some isolated cheating, President Hamid Karzai had won the election with enough votes to avoid a runoff.
"It's not by chance. They really knew who they wanted to kidnap," the co-worker said. "Now we can't declare Karzai the winner. . . . This is a worst-case scenario."
Others said they feared the kidnapping could presage a series of copycat kidnappings that could drive away some foreigners or keep them isolated in their homes and office compounds.
"There's a lot of concern right now, not only for the people involved, but because this is the first time it's happened in quite so visible a fashion right in the city," said Nick Downie, project manager of the Afghanistan Nongovernmental Organization Security Office, which provides security advice for relief agencies in Kabul.
Downie also said he believed the kidnap victims were chosen because of the connection to the election. "It appears to have been quite deliberate, and according to my analysis, quite targeted," he said. "A U.N. vehicle was stopped -- forced off the road, in fact."
Security experts here could recall only a handful of kidnappings of foreigners in Afghanistan in the three years since the fall of the Taliban, all of which involved Indian or Turkish workers employed by the company rebuilding the Kabul-to-Kandahar road. In most of those cases, the victims were released, as rumors spread that the company paid ransoms, but one Turkish engineer was killed in a shootout between kidnappers and security forces.
Foreigners have been targeted in several fatal attacks over the past year. In November 2003, a French woman working for the U.N. refugee agency was shot dead while driving through a crowded town. In June, five workers from the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders -- two Afghans and three Europeans -- were ambushed and killed on a remote road in western Afghanistan.
In the run-up to the election, suspected Taliban guerrillas killed at least a dozen Afghan election workers, mostly in volatile southern Afghanistan. Still, the election passed peacefully, leading to predictions from some Afghan and U.S. officials that the Taliban was on the verge of elimination as a serious threat.
The kidnappings and the suicide bombing Saturday on Chicken Street, a major shopping area frequented by Westerners, came at a time when Kabul's foreign community -- diplomats, aid workers, security officers, journalists and tourists -- had grown more relaxed about personal security. Many foreigners who once would not venture outside after dark and traveled mainly in four-wheel-drive vehicles with hired drivers had begun walking or taking public taxis, and staying out at private house parties and restaurants until after midnight.