Afghan Taliban say Korean Hostages in Good Health

Twenty-three South Korean hostages held by Taliban rebels in Afghanistan are in good health and any use of force to rescue them would put their lives at risk, a Taliban spokesman said on Monday.

Published 23 July 2007

Twenty-three South Korean hostages held by Taliban rebels in Afghanistan are in good health and any use of force to rescue them would put their lives at risk, a Taliban spokesman said on Monday.

The Taliban on Sunday extended a deadline for South Korea to agree to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners by 24 hours to 1430 GMT on Monday. After that they would start killing the Koreans.

"They are in good health and fine, but we would like to repeat that any use of force will claim the lives of the hostages and the Taliban then would not be responsible," said Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf.

The 23 hostages belong to the "Saemmul Church" in Bundang, a city outside South Korea's capital, Seoul. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, and include nurses and English teachers.

While tribal elders tried to mediate between the militants and government negotiators, Afghan forces have surrounded the group of some 70 kidnappers in the Qarabagh area of Ghazni province, south of the capital Kabul.

The Afghan government was hopeful for a peaceful outcome.

"We are working on it. We are hopeful that we will have good achievements and good results from what we are doing," said Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashari.

"We have assigned a working group in Ghazni province to work on the issue and we are serious about what we are doing," he said, declining to give further details.

A delegation of eight South Korean officials, including a deputy foreign minister and a presidential advisor, were also aiding the negotiations, a Korean embassy official said.

"The diplomats from the embassy are still in negotiations with community elders of Ghazni province to solve the matter peacefully and secure the safe release of the hostages," he said.

But another Taliban spokesman quoted by the Pakistan-based Afghanistan Islamic Press news agency said negotiations with the Afghan government were heading for failure and they did not expect anything from the talks.

The spokesman asked the South Korean government to contact the Taliban as soon as possible and threatened to kill the hostages if the matter was not resolved by evening.

"WE WILL NOT GIVE IN"

The pastor of the Saemmul Church that sent the 23 volunteers said on Monday he was calling off work in Afghanistan and apologised to the families and South Koreans for causing concern, Korean media said.

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would not give in to the demands of the kidnappers -- who also seized two German engineers and killed at least one of them -- to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

"We will not give in to blackmail", she told ARD public television on Sunday.

German authorities have seen the body of a German hostage who died in captivity in Afghanistan and it had gunshot wounds, a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

He said it was unclear what was the exact cause of death and added that Berlin wanted the remains returned to Germany as soon as possible for a closer examination.

The Koreans are the biggest group of foreigners kidnapped so far in the Taliban campaign to oust the Western-backed government and force out foreign troops.

The area south of Kabul where the Germans and Koreans were seized this week has seen a marked escalation of violence in the last month as Taliban militants have moved in from the south.

Residents say government troops only hold the major towns and much of the countryside is beyond their control.

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