Image: S. Korean protester
Ahn Young-joon  /  AP
Protesters rally Friday in Seoul, South Korea, to demand the safe return of South Koreans kidnapped in Afghanistan.
updated 8/6/2007 12:07:19 AM ET 2007-08-06T04:07:19

As the Taliban and South Korean officials negotiated over a possible face-to-face meeting, a South Korean diplomat in Afghanistan spoke by telephone to one of the 21 captives being held by the militant group, an official said Monday.

The Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, declined to give further details about the conversation, citing safety concerns.

The Taliban has agreed to meet face-to-face with a South Korean delegation, but has not agreed on a venue. A purported Taliban spokesman expressed concerns that militants could be detained by the Afghan military and proposed either a meeting in Taliban territory or a United Nations-hosted meeting elsewhere.

The spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the militants had talked to the Korean officials “many times” over the phone the last three days but that there had been “no results.”

“We gave them two choices: either come to Taliban-controlled territory or meet us abroad,” Ahmadi said from an unknown location. “They accepted these options and told us, ’We are trying to persuade the U.N. to give you a guarantee to meet us in another country.”’

“The Koreans also said if the U.N. did not agree to give the Taliban a guarantee we will come to your areas to meet. They have not done any of the above promises yet,” he said.

Support from U.N.
A U.N. spokesman said the international body was “fully supporting” efforts by the South Korean and Afghan governments to resolve the crisis.

“We are obviously aware of the unconfirmed reports suggesting that those holding the aid workers have requested our assistance to meet with the South Korean delegation at a neutral venue, but we have not been approached directly on this issue,” said Dan McNorton of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Twenty-three South Koreans from a church group were kidnapped by the Taliban on July 19 while traveling from Kabul to Kandahar to work on medical and other aid projects. Two of the male hostages have been executed. Among the remaining 21 hostages, 16 are women.

The Taliban have demanded that 23 militant prisoners held by Afghanistan and at the U.S. base at Bagram be freed in exchange for the Koreans’ lives, but the Afghan government has all but ruled out that option, saying it would encourage more kidnappings.

An official at the Korean Embassy in Kabul said the location of a potential meeting between the Koreans and the Taliban was not important. Asked if paying a ransom is an option, he declined to comment. He spoke on condition he not be identified in line with embassy rules.

Appeal to U.S.
South Korea has appealed to the United States to get more involved in the negotiation process, and the Koreans are expected to be on the agenda for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Bush when they meet at Camp David on Sunday and Monday.

The Afghan government has all but ruled out the hostage-prisoner swap after it came under strong criticism earlier this year for making a deal to secure the release of an Italian citizen.

“We will not do anything that will encourage hostage-taking, that will encourage terrorism. But we will do everything else to have them released,” Karzai said in a CNN interview broadcast Sunday.

Meanwhile in Seoul, relatives of the hostages planned to stage rallies at the U.S. and Afghan embassies.

Ahmadi said the Taliban have been waiting for negotiations to start and have extended many deadlines for the Koreans’ lives.

If an agreement is not reached for in-person negotiations, then the Taliban will not be responsible for “anything bad” that happens to the hostages, Ahmadi said.

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