Taliban negotiate over hostages

Updated: 2007-07-27 07:11

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan clerics and tribal elders are negotiating for the release of 22 South Korean hostages, who a Taliban spokesman said Thursday have been split into small groups and are being fed bread, yogurt and rice a week after their capture.

A local police chief said the talks have been difficult because the Taliban's demands were unclear.

"One says, 'Let's exchange them for my relative,' the others say, 'Let's release the women,' and yet another wants a deal for money," said Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi, police chief in Qarabagh. "They have got problems among themselves."

The Taliban reiterated their demand that jailed militants be freed in exchange for the captives, and set the latest of several deadlines - midday Friday - for the condition to be met or more hostages would be killed.

One of the original group of 23 abducted Koreans, a 42-year-old pastor, was found slain with multiple gunshots Wednesday. Authorities recovered the body of Bae Hyung-kyu in Qarabagh district of Ghazni province, where the South Koreans were seized on July 19.

Bae, a founder of the Saemmul Presbyterian Church, led its volunteer work in Afghanistan and was killed on his birthday, South Korean church officials said. An official at the South Korean Embassy in Kabul said authorities were arranging to repatriate the body.

His mother, 68-year-old Lee Chang-suk, broke into tears as she watched the televised government announcement of his death. "I never thought it possible," she said from the southern island of Jeju, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

At the church, about 1,000 people gathered Thursday evening to mourn Bae and pray for the other captives, many crying and consoling each other.

Relatives of other abductees, meanwhile, appealed anew for their relatives' release.

"We hope the negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban go well," said Kim Kyung-ja, mother of hostage Lee Sun-young. "Please send our lovely children home."

Cha Sung-min, 31, whose 32-year-old sister Cha Hye-jin was being held, said the families were struggling.

"After hearing the sad news, yesterday was a very difficult day," Cha said. "We believe the best way right now is to trust our government."

South Korean presidential spokesman Chun Ho-sun said the 22 South Koreans still believed held were not suffering health problems. He said South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had spoken with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the situation.

But one of the hostages, who identified herself as Yo Syun Ju, told an Afghan journalist by telephone that all the hostages were sick, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. She pleaded for help to secure their release.

"Tell them to do something to get us released," she said in an interview in the presence of the Taliban militants holding her captive.

Yo, who said she was from Seoul, described her situation as "dangerous."

"Day by day it is getting very difficult," she said in the interview obtained by the BBC. "We are all sick and we have a lot of problems."

Local tribal elders and religious clerics who have respect among the people of Qarabagh district, where the Taliban kidnapped the South Koreans, have been conducting negotiations with the captors for several days.

The negotiations have been held over the telephone, said Ghazni police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai.

"We will not use force against the militants to free the hostages," Ahmadzai said. "The best way in this case is dialogue."

Waheedullah Mujadidi, who heads the delegation, complained that the Taliban were not being consistent during the negotiations.

The Taliban at one point demanded that 23 jailed militants be freed in exchange for the Koreans. It is not clear how many militants the Taliban want freed or which ones.

Afghanistan's government brokered a much-criticized prisoner swap in March in which five captive Taliban fighters were freed for the release of Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo. The militants killed Mastrogiacomo's translator and driver.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the hard-line Islamist Taliban, said they had been contacted by Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Munir Mangal, who said the government would make a decision regarding the militants' demands by noon Friday.

"If Kabul administration does not solve our problem ... then we do not have any option but to kill Korean hostages," Ahmadi said.

"The Taliban are not asking for money. We just want to exchange our prisoners for Korean hostages. ... When they release the Taliban, we will release the hostages," Ahmadi said by phone from an undisclosed location.

Ahmadi said the 22 hostages were being held in small groups in different locations and were being fed "no burgers ... but the same food that our villagers have - bread, yogurt, rice."

The South Koreans, including 18 women, were kidnapped while on a bus trip through Ghazni province on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan's main thoroughfare.

Their church said the abductees were not involved in any Christian missionary work in Afghanistan, and that they provided only medical and other volunteer aid to distressed people in the war-ravaged country. It said it will suspend some of its volunteer work in Afghanistan.

Two Germans were also kidnapped last week. One was found dead and the other apparently remains captive.

In new violence, U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan troops fought two separate battles with militants in southern Afghanistan, killing more than 60 suspected Taliban insurgents. A NATO soldier was killed in another incident, officials said.

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