Koreans and Afghans negotiate ahead of captors' deadline

The Taliban has threatened to kill 23 South Korean hostages if a prisoner exchange deal is not reached by 7 p.m. local time.

Taliban members holding 23 South Korean hostages agreed to extend the deadline for their execution for another 24 hours until 7 p.m. Tuesday (10:30 a.m. Eastern time). As talks continue, the Afghan government is refusing to release any of the 23 Taliban prisoners demanded by the militants in exchange for the Koreans. Meanwhile, Afghan security forces have surrounded the Taliban militants’ location. The captors say they will kill the Korean detainees if the government attempts to use force to free them. [Updated: 7/23/07, 11:45 a.m.]

Whether the Afghan government will meet the kidnappers' terms remains unclear. Last March, Afghan President Hamid Karzai authorized a prisoner exchange to free an Italian journalist, releasing five Taliban members in exchange for the reporter. The move drew international criticism, with many fearing that the exchange would encourage future kidnappings, reports The Independent. If negotiations fail, troops are standing by.

The police chief in Ghazni Province, Ali Shah Ahmadzai, said Afghan officials and elders had met with the kidnappers yesterday to try to find a solution. US and Afghan troops also moved into the region in case they were asked to rescue the hostages. "We have surrounded the area but are working very carefully. We don't want them to be killed," he said.

Militants kidnapped the Koreans while they traveled by bus on the road between Kandahar and Kabul. Despite tensions, however, both parties remain "optimistic" that they can reach a nonmilitary solution, reports The New York Times.

"A delegation from Korea arrived in Afghanistan today, and we hope to talk to them," said the [Taliban] spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, reached via telephone from an unknown location. "We are optimistic that the Afghan government can be convinced to release our prisoners."
Talks to resolve the crisis have already begun between the Taliban and tribal elders, according to Gen. Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the defense ministry. "We're hoping this can be solved peacefully," he said.

However, Al Jazeera reports that Mr. Ahmadi said that though the talks continue, they are "not going well." He said the main problem was that the Afghan government delegation did not have "full authority" to authorize the release of the Taliban prisoners.

The Korean hostages were mostly teachers and nurses in their 20s and 30s. They formed part of an evangelical group running a "small and unobtrusive" medical charity in Kandahar, a Western official told the Guardian. The Korean Embassy in Kabul contends that the group was not conducting missionary work, an activity forbidden by Islam. Nevertheless, Afghanistan has long attracted South Korean Christians like those recently kidnapped.

Proselytising is illegal in Afghanistan and the Taliban have threatened to kill missionaries who secretly enter the country. Last year the government deported 1,200 South Koreans who flew to Kabul for a "peace parade" that never took place.

Following the abduction, the largest since the fall of the Taliban government, South Korea has forbidden any of its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan and urged the estimated 200 already there to leave. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) reports that those who do not obey the government's new directive can face up to a year in prison or a fine of 3 million won ($3,200).

The Taliban has also called for a withdrawal of all Korean troops. Presently, South Korea has 200 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan who work predominately as engineers and medics. Even before the abduction, the South Koreans had plans to remove their troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, reports the Yonhap News Agency.

President Roh Moo-hyun went on the air Saturday to appeal for the safe return of the hostages and reaffirm his government's plan to withdraw its contingent of military engineers and medics by the year's end as scheduled.
Roh also noted that the kidnapped were providing medical, educational, and other humanitarian services in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post reports that the discovery of a German hostage's body has added further tension to the situation. The man was one of two Germans and five Afghans kidnapped Wednesday, the day before the Koreans were abducted. The Taliban insists they killed the German, but the circumstances of his death remain unclear.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government would not agree to the Taliban's demand that Germany withdraw its troops. "We will not give in to blackmail," she told the German public television network ARD.
The kidnappings, as well as previous cases, have targeted people from countries that have been ambivalent about their commitment to the international military presence in Afghanistan.
The governments of South Korea and Germany have both come under intense domestic political pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan, and South Korea has already announced that it will leave the country by the end of the year.

The Associated Press is tracking any new developments in the story.

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