Family Members Pray for Korean Hostages' Release

Tearful family members of South Korean volunteers held hostage by Afghan Taliban rebels prayed for their safe release at their church on Sunday.

Dozens of people cried as they anxiously watched television at a cafeteria of the Saemmul Church on the outskirts of Seoul for any news of relatives, kidnapped while on an aid mission to Afghanistan.

"My kids went to the war-ravaged country to do volunteer work, carrying love," Seo Jung-bae, 57, whose son and daughter were both taken hostage, told reporters.

"I feel like chopping off my foot for letting you go. I hope you will return to us and the country without a single hair damaged," he said, weeping.

Twenty of the hostages were from the Presbyterian church, mostly in their 20s and 30s and include nurses and English teachers.

Afghan and international forces had launched a joint operation to rescue the 23 Koreans seized by the Taliban on Thursday, the Afghan defence ministry said. It gave no other details.

A Taliban spokesman told Reuters the militants would start killing them if Seoul did not agree to pull its 200 engineers and medics from by 1430 GMT on Sunday and the Afghan government did not release all Taliban prisoners.

The Taliban said on Saturday it killed two German hostages after Berlin refused to yield to demands for it to pull its troops out Afghanistan.

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said the Korean group had left for Afghanistan on July 13 and were joined by three other South Koreans before being seized in a bus in Ghazni. They had been scheduled to return home on July 27, Yonhap said.

Established in 1998, the church has about 3,800 members. It sends members on short-term aid missions worldwide every summer.

South Korea has an estimated 12,000 Christian missionaries abroad, the second largest after the United States, and who are known for their aggressive evangelistic activities in Muslim countries.

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