KABUL, (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Taliban extended its deadline for a deal for the release of a French hostage until after Sunday’s French presidential election, as three suicide bombers attacked U.S. and Afghan forces in the south.
The Taliban leadership council had put off Saturday’s deadline as a sign of mercy, Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said by phone from an undisclosed location. “We have extended it (the ultimatum) until the elections are over,” Yousuf said.
Aid worker Eric Damfreville and three Afghan colleagues would be freed if at least one of the Taliban’s demands were met, he said, but added the Taliban had heard nothing from authorities seeking the aid workers’ release.
Afghan police said two of their officers were killed when a suicide bomber rammed a car into their vehicle in Helmand province. And a witness said two foreign soldiers were killed in a bombing in Paktika province, although the U.S. military said the only casualty was a wounded soldier.
The Taliban and their allies are largely active in southern and eastern regions close to the border with Pakistan and have vowed this year to step up their suicide attacks against Western troops and President Hamid Karzai’s government.
Saturday had marked the second deadline from the Taliban, who last month abducted two French aid workers and three Afghans working for Terre d’Enfance, an agency helping children in southwestern Afghanistan.
A French woman, Celine Cordelier, was released late last month in what the Taliban said was a humanitarian gesture.
The militants have demanded the withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan and the release of jailed Taliban by the Afghan government. “Our reaction is clear, we may kill him,” Yousuf said, when asked what would happen if none of the Taliban demands were met.
Karzai said this week efforts were under way to secure the release of the French man, after calls from French President Jacques Chirac for him to intervene.
The French Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it had taken note of the communique on the hostages by the Tabliban spokesman but would not be making any comment.
The five were kidnapped in the southeastern province of Nimroz, between Iran and Afghanistan’s opium centre of Helmand.
Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, kidnapped last month, was freed when Kabul released five Taliban prisoners in a deal that diplomats predicted would encourage the Taliban to take more hostages. His Afghan driver was beheaded in front of him before his release and his translator was later beheaded when the Afghan government refused to free more Taliban.
The Taliban are also holding five Afghan health workers and have threatened to kill one soon unless the government starts peace talks.
A coalition soldier was injured in southeastern Paktika province when a suicide bomber in a red truck set off his bomb as a military convoy went past, a U.S. military spokesman said.
An Afghan civilian wounded in the attack said he saw the bodies of two dead Western soldiers at the scene.
In neighbouring Paktia province, a bomber on foot triggered explosives attached to his waistcoat as an Afghan army convoy passed, said another Taliban spokesman, who said the group carried out all three attacks.
An Afghan army officer in the region said he heard of the attack, but had no details.
Afghanistan saw its bloodiest period last year since coalition forces overthrew Taliban’s government in 2001 and this year is seen as crunch year for all sides of the conflict.