KABUL - The Taliban have not killed the remaining 22 South Korean Christian volunteers held hostage in Afghanistan despite a deadline passing, a Taliban spokesman said on Thursday.
A South Korean woman attends a candlelight vigil in Seoul, demanding the withdrawal of South Korean troops from Afghanistan and the safe return of their kidnapped compatriots. [AFP]
"They are safe and alive," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location. The Afghan government, he said, "has given us hope for a peaceful settlement of the issue."
The Taliban gave the Afghan government till (2030 GMT / 4:30 p.m. EDT) ) on Wednesday to agree to exchange the group for imprisoned rebels, but the deadline passed without word from the kidnappers until Yousuf spoke on Thursday morning.
Earlier, General Ali Shah Ahmadzai, provincial police chief of Ghazni province where the 22 remaining hostages are being held and where one was killed on Wednesday, told Reuters the government was keen to resume negotiations with the kidnappers.
He confirmed they also believed the hostages were safe.
"I was awake all night and if the Taliban had killed any of them I would have known," he said. "We are trying to contact the Taliban for resumption of talks."
The fate of the 22 Christian volunteers had hung in the balance overnight, after the rebels killed one hostage and dumped his bullet-ridden body near where the group was seized last week.
He was identified as the group's leader, Bae Hyung-kyu, a pastor who would have turned 42 on the day he was murdered.
South Korea's government strongly condemned Bae's murder, calling it an unforgivable atrocity.
"The government and the people of South Korea condemn the kidnapping of innocent civilians and the atrocity of harming a human life," said Baek Jong-chun, presidential Blue House chief national security adviser.
"Harming innocent civilians can never be justified and we will never forgive this kind of inhumane act," he said in a nationally televised statement.
The Taliban accused the government and South Korean negotiators of failing to act in good faith after Kabul rejected demands for eight named rebels to be freed from prison.
Initially the Taliban had also insisted South Korea withdraw its 200 troops serving with international forces in Afghanistan -- something Seoul planned to do at the end of the year anyway.
"Since Kabul's administration did not listen to our demand and did not free our prisoners, the Taliban shot dead a male Korean hostage," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location.
Bae was killed in a desert area close to where the group -- 18 women and five men -- were abducted on the main road south from Kabul last week.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to swap prisoners for hostages after being criticized for releasing five Taliban from jail in March in exchange for an Italian reporter.
The president and ministers have remained silent throughout the latest hostage ordeal, but Seoul said it would soon dispatch a special envoy to step up coordination with Kabul.
The kidnappings have made travel outside major cities risky for the thousands of foreign aid workers and U.N. staff in Afghanistan and may weaken support for military involvement among the more than 30 nations with troops in the country.
The past 18 months has seen rising violence in Afghanistan, with daily clashes between Taliban insurgents and Afghan and foreign troops. Suicide and roadside bomb attacks have spread to areas previously considered safe.
In the latest violence, more than 50 insurgents were killed in a 12-hour battle with US-led troops in the southern province of Helmand, the US military said on Thursday.
More than 160 insurgents have been killed in Helmand's Musa Qala district since Sunday, the military said.