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Criminals rather than Islamic militants are holding three kidnapped U.N. workers, an official said Wednesday, dismissing the claims of a Taliban-linked group threatening to kill the hostages unless the United States frees 26 jailed comrades.

Afghan authorities believe the three foreigners -- Philippine diplomat Angelito Nayan, British-Irish citizen Annetta Flanigan and Shqipe Hebibi of Kosovo -- have been kept in Kabul since their abduction three week ago.

A little-known rebel group called Jaish-al Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, said Wednesday through a spokesman that its leaders were holding a critical meeting on the hostages' fate. The spokesman insisted the captives were in the group's hands.

But a spokesman for the Afghan government's Interior Ministry said Jaish-al Muslimeen is not holding the foreigners. "The kidnappers are armed robbers, not Jaish-al Muslimeen," Latfullah Mashal told the Associated Press.

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