The future of 22 South Korean aid workers affiliated with a church and held hostage by the Taliban south of Kabul was uncertain on Friday, the day after the murdered body of the leader of the group was found not far from where they're being held, Reuters reports.
Authorities in Ghazni, where the Christian hostages are believed to be held, refused to speak to the media. But one provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban had extended the deadline to allow face-to-face talks with the government.
Accusing the government of "killing time and playing tricks," a Taliban spokesman had said earlier they would kill the captives if rebel prisoners were not released by the Afghan government by Friday noon.
"The administration of Kabul has asked us to give them till 12 noon today," spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We are waiting for them. We have given them a list of eight prisoners and if they are not released we won't have any other option than to start killing the hostages."
An envoy from South Korea's President was due to arrive in Kabul on Friday to coordinate efforts to secure the group's safe release, reports the Associated Press. The manner in which efforts to secure their release is being conducted underscores the lack of central government control in the lawless region where they were abducted, on the country's main traffic artery from Kabul to Kandahar.
Local tribal elders and religious clerics who have respect among the people of the Qarabagh district where the Koreans were taken have been conducting negotiations by telephone with the captors for several days.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the hard-line Islamist Taliban, on Thursday reiterated a demand for the release of Taliban prisoners, and a threat to kill more of the hostages.
"If Kabul administration does not solve our problem .... then we do not have any option but to kill Korean hostages," Ahmadi said by phone from an undisclosed location.
Their church said the abductees were not involved in any Christian missionary work in Afghanistan, and had 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.
The New York Times reports that the hostage crisis is gripping the South Korean nation, and leading to soul searching about the missionary and aid work carried out by church groups in war zones.
In this highly wired country, where the Internet has emerged as a major channel of public opinion, people posted Web messages lamenting Mr. Bae's death and praying for the release of the other hostages. But many also criticized churches for sending young people to countries like Afghanistan.
For South Koreans, this new crisis represents the cost of the aid and evangelical operations that its Christian churches conduct in some of the world's most dangerous places.
In 2004, a South Korean interpreter and aspiring Christian missionary was beheaded by militants in Iraq.
Several South Korean missionaries have served time in or remain in Chinese prisons, accused of trying to convert North Korean refugees or for smuggling them to South Korea. One missionary, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 2000, is believed to have died in the North.
With 12,000 to 17,000 evangelists in more than 160 countries, South Korea has one of the most aggressive armies of Christian missionaries on earth. Only the United States sends out more — 46,000 by some estimates.
Britain's The Daily Telegraph reports that the UK is considering sending more troops to Afghanistan.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said the current force of almost 7,700 troops was likely to expand as British influence spread across Helmand province.
"I suspect that we will, over time, as we develop more opportunities, as we spread our influence, want to increase our capacity in one or two areas to take advantage of those opportunities," the Chief of the Defence Staff told the BBC.
While the year-long fight in the lawless province had "come an enormously long way" he conceded that compared to where Afghanistan needed to get "it looks as if we've come hardly any distance".
Sir Jock also expressed his "frustration" yesterday at the failure of other Nato countries to send more troops to the region. If Britain's allies did not have the stomach for fighting then they should send equipment such as helicopters to assist the operation, he said. But "it would be nice if people would do more on the military front", he added.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan claimed more civilian victims on Thursday, raising concerns about losing more hearts and minds in the troubled country, reports Reuters.
One of the raids by NATO hit houses in the Girishk district of Helmand province on Thursday evening, killing up to 50 civilians, a group of some 20 residents reported to journalists in Kandahar, the main city in the south.
Wali Jan Sabri, a parliamentarian from Helmand, said he had credible information that between 50 to 60 civilians had been killed in a battle between the Taliban and NATO forces in Girishk.
The district chief of Girishk, Manaf Khan, said more than 20 civilians were killed in NATO bombing when they were trying to flee the battle.
He later phoned Reuters to say that 50 Taliban were also killed in the bombing and battle.
A spokesman for British forces in Helmand said there was an ongoing operation in the province, but denied there had been any civilian casualties around Girishk.
Canada's Globe and Mail reports that country's top commander in Afghanistan narrowly escaped an assassination attempt this week.
A suicide bomber today attacked a convoy of armoured vehicles carrying Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant, Canada's top military commander in Afghanistan.
No Canadians or Afghans passers-by were hurt by the huge blast but it left a heavily armoured RG-31 on its side.
Earlier this month, in one of the biggest blasts ever seen in Afghanistan, an RG-31 was destroyed, killing all six Canadians and an Afghan interpreter inside. The RG-31 developed in South Africa, is widely regarded as the least vulnerable of all Canadian fighting vehicles in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post reports that militant students retook the Red Mosque in the capital of neighboring Pakistan by force on Thursday, which the government seized in a bloody showdown with clerics and students earlier this month that claimed over 100 lives.
That siege led to a spurt in pro-Taliban propaganda in Pakistan, a country that once sponsored the group, and a surge in attacks on Pakistani troops in the country's lawless border region.
Radical students retook the Red Mosque in this normally sleepy capital city on Friday, forcing a government-appointed cleric to flee and demanding the release of their pro-Taliban leader.
The action raised the possibility of another siege at the mosque, just weeks after the government dispatched hundreds of elite commandos in a successful but bloody effort to take control of the building.
The new showdown at the mosque provides yet another challenge to [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf's government, which is already struggling to contain a building insurgency focused in the country's northwest. Musharraf is also grappling with an emerging pro-democracy movement, which is demanding he schedule fresh elections and step down from his job as head of the army.