Afghan village elders were locked in talks with the Taliban on Tuesday in a bid to free 10 foreign and one Afghan hostage being held captive by the militia for a third day, officials said.
The Taliban, who are fighting an 11-year insurgency against US-led Nato troops and the Afghan government, said earlier the captives were in good health and had been moved to a “safe area”.
The militants seized the eight Turks, a Russian, a Kyrgyz man and an Afghan after their civilian helicopter made a forced landing due to bad weather on Sunday in a rugged eastern district part-controlled by the insurgents.
It was the largest abduction of foreigners in almost six years and highlighted Afghanistan’s continuing insecurity as Nato troops prepare to pull out.
Talks between village elders and the Taliban have “so far made good progress and we are optimistic for a good outcome”, said Din Mohammad Darvish, spokesman for the government of Logar province south of Kabul where the helicopter came down.
“It’s a bit early to say when the prisoners will be released,” he added.
Abdul Wali Wakil, head of the elected provincial council, confirmed that a group of elders was holding negotiations.
Wakil said the hostages were fine apart from one Turk, who apparently suffers from heart problems and was sent medicine through the negotiators.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the captives “have been moved to a safe area, they have no health problem and they are fine”.
Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location he said they were still in Afghanistan. There are sometimes fears that hostages can be smuggled across the porous border into Pakistan, where the Taliban and other militants have rear bases.
The Mi-8 helicopter, carrying Turkish road engineers and with a Russian and Kyrgyz crew, landed in Azra district, not far from the Pakistan border.
Asked what would happen to the group, Mujahid said: “The Taliban 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.
Afghan interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a search for the group had begun but declined to give details for security reasons.
A government official said on condition of anonymity that authorities want tribal elders to negotiate with the Taliban, in preference to mounting a major military operation.
Raids to release hostages in Afghanistan have not always ended in success.
In October 2010, British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed as US forces tried to rescue her from kidnappers in eastern Afghanistan.
The last time a major group of foreigners was abducted in Afghanistan was in July 2007, when the Taliban seized 23 South Korean church volunteers travelling through the south by coach.
The militants killed two men before releasing the rest, reportedly in return for ransom payments.
The abduction sparked concern in Turkey, which said its diplomats were holding “intensive talks” with Afghan authorities.
Turkey, one of only two Muslim-majority members of Nato, has around 1,800 soldiers serving with the US-led International Security Assistance Force. But they do not take part in combat operations.
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion and have been battling Afghan and foreign troops ever since.
Afghan troops and police are increasingly on the frontline as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of next year.
Some 73 per cent of all insurgent attacks in January-March were against Afghan soldiers or police and only four per cent against foreign forces, according to a study by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.
The report said insurgent attacks rose by 47 per cent in the first quarter compared to January-March last year.
On Tuesday, officials said gunmen had also kidnapped nine Afghan deminers in the restive southern province of Kandahar. The Taliban denied any involvement.