Officials 'hopeful' in Korean hostages

Updated: 2007-07-28 17:09

One of the family members of kidnapped South Koreans in Afghanistan cries during a news conference asking for the safe return of the hostages, in Seoul, July 26, 2007. [Reuters]

Negotiations resumed in Afghanistan Saturday to free 22 South Koreans kidnapped by the Taliban as a top envoy from Seoul was set to hold high-level meetings over the crisis.

Afghan officials said they remained "hopeful" of securing the release of the Christian aid mission kidnapped in the insurgency-hit south, and now in their 10th day of captivity. The leader of the group has already been killed.

"We resumed our talks early today (Saturday), we have no particular achievement so far but we are hopeful for their release," Waheedullah Mujadadi, head of the Afghan delegation leading negotiations told AFP.

The Taliban said Friday it had given negotiators more time to allow the South Korean envoy to arrive in Kabul and join talks, but again threatened to kill all 22 hostages if the Afghan government was not honest in discussions.

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The presidential envoy was expected to seek an urgent meeting Saturday with President Hamid Karzai and US-led forces after arriving Friday, and following a desperate appeal by one of the female hostages for help.

The negotiations come after another deadline imposed by the Taliban militants for midday Friday (0730 GMT) passed without incident.

The extremists are demanding the release of eight Taliban prisoners held in Afghanistan in return for the aid workers' freedom although Seoul has said the rebels' demands are "considerably fluid and not unified."

Provincial police chief for Ghazni province, where the hostages were snatched from their bus last week, said Saturday that he too remained optimistic of resolving the dragging crisis peacefully.

"The process of negotiations is going very well. We are optimistic for good news. We are trying our best to resolve this issue as soon as possible," Alishah Ahmadzai told AFP.

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi was not immediately available for comment.

One of the hostages this week made an emotional plea for help in a reported telephone interview with US television network CBS, apparently conducted in the presence of her captors.

The plea came after the bullet-riddled body of the mission leader was dumped in a desert area on Wednesday. The rebels said they had killed him because talks with the Afghan government and South Korean officials had stalled.

South Korea named him as 42-year-old Bae Hyung-Kyu, a Presbyterian pastor and the head of the mostly female aid mission based at a Seoul church, which was reportedly in the country to provide free medical services.

The South Koreans were seized while travelling on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar last Thursday in Ghazni province about 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of Kabul.

The Taliban have also demanded that Seoul withdraw its 200 troops serving with US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. South Korea responded by saying it would pull them out as previously scheduled by the end of the year.

The militants are also holding a hostage from Germany. The rebels have also demanded the withdrawal of Germany's 3000 troops from the war-torn country, as they step up their use of kidnap as a negotiating tool.

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