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S. Korean officials meet Taliban over hostages

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2007

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (AP) — Two top Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials met face-to-face yesterday in the first negotiations over the fate of 21 members of a church group held hostage for three weeks, Afghan officials said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said two members of the top militant council — Mullah Bashir and Mullah Nasorullah — traveled to the central Afghan city of Ghazni, near where the South Koreans were kidnapped July 19. He said the government in Kabul gave the Taliban a written guarantee the two officials will be safe.

The meeting began yesterday evening in Ghazni at the office of the Afghan Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross in Islamic countries, said Marajudin Pathan, the local governor. An Afghan official, who asked not to be identified because he was talking about sensitive information, said the two Taliban leaders, four South Korean officials and four International Committee of the Red Cross officials participated in the meeting.

"We have given them the freedom of secrecy to talk with each other," Mr. Pathan said, confirming that no Afghan officials were taking part in the talks.

He said the government guaranteed the Taliban members' "safety and security."

Mr. Ahmadi said the Taliban would not kill any of the 21 remaining South Korean hostages until the face-to-face meetings were held. Two men among the 23 South Koreans originally kidnapped have already been killed.

The South Koreans were the largest group of foreign hostages taken in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and their kidnapping underscores the rise of the Taliban's power in rural Afghanistan over past two years.

The captors repeatedly threatened to kill more hostages if their demands to release Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and the U.S. military are not met.

The Afghan government said it will not release prisoners because doing so could encourage more kidnappings. Afghan authorities say talks with the Taliban are the best way to resolve the problem.

Mr. Pathan said a ransom payment might resolve the crisis. He said the talks would not lead to further negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The South Korean government issued guidelines to its aid organizations, telling them to leave Afghanistan by the end of the month for safety reasons, a South Korean Embassy official said, on the condition of anonymity due to policy.

Last month, the government banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan.

In South Korea, a spokesman for the hostages' families said the mothers of several hostages — five women and a translator — will travel to the emirate of Dubai next week to seek help from the Arab world in securing their loved ones' release.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, meanwhile, agreed to attend the closing session of a peace council between hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani tribal leaders discussing the rising militant violence along their shared border.

Gen. Musharraf canceled his appearance at Thursday's opening of the conference — or "jirga" — raising doubts about how effective it would be, especially because tribesmen from the most volatile Pakistani border zone were boycotting it.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai phoned Gen. Musharraf yesterday evening and invited him to attend tomorrow's closing session, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said.