GHAZNI, Afghanistan - A Taliban leader taking part in hostage negotiations for the lives of 21 South Koreans said Saturday that talks are on a "positive track" and that he hopes the captives could be released "today or tomorrow."
Mullah Qari Bashir said that face-to-face negotiations with four Korean officials that began Friday were going well and that the Taliban were sticking with their original demand － that 21 Taliban prisoners be released from prisons in Afghanistan.
"I'm very optimistic. The negotiations are continuing on a positive track," Bashir said.
Asked when the hostages might be released, he said: "Hopefully today or tomorrow."
The South Koreans abducted on July 19 were the largest group of foreign hostages taken in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and their kidnapping underscores the rise of the Taliban's power in rural Afghanistan over the last two years.
Two men among the 23 South Koreans originally kidnapped already have been killed. Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi has said the Taliban would not kill any of the remaining South Korean hostages until the face-to-face meetings have been held.
The Afghan government has said it will not release prisoners because doing so could encourage more kidnappings. Afghan authorities say talks with the Taliban are the best way to resolve the problem.
Marajudin Pathan, the local governor, has said a ransom payment might resolve the crisis. He said the talks would not lead to further negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The South Korean government has issued guidelines to its aid organizations telling them to leave Afghanistan by the end of the month for safety reasons, a South Korean Embassy official said on condition of anonymity due to policy.
Last month, the government banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan.
Ahmadi said the departure of South Korean aid workers would have a "positive effect." He did not elaborate.
In South Korea, a spokesman for the hostages' families said Friday that the mothers of several hostages － five women and a translator － will travel to the emirate of Dubai next week to seek help from the Arab world in securing their loved ones' release.
"The reason why we are sending women, especially mothers, to Dubai is that Islamic culture has more sympathy for women," said the spokesman, Cha Sung-min. Sixteen of the hostages are women.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, meanwhile, agreed to attend the closing session of a peace council between hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani tribal leaders discussing the rising militant violence along their shared border.
Musharraf canceled his appearance at Thursday's opening of the conference － or "jirga" － raising doubts about how effective it would be, especially because tribesmen from the most volatile Pakistani border zone were boycotting it.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai phoned Musharraf on Friday evening and invited him to attend Sunday's closing session, saying his participation would be "a source of support and encouragement for the jirga process," Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said.
Musharraf agreed "in principle" to address the closing session, a ministry statement said, without elaborating. An official in Musharraf's office said the commitment was not iron-clad because the government does not flag the president's movements due to security concerns.