GHAZNI, Afghanistan — A Taliban spokesman said yesterday that two sick female South Korean hostages would be released "soon" for the sake of good relations between the Taliban and South Korea. Neither the International Red Cross or the Afghan government could promptly confirm the claim.
The spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the two women would be freed because they are sick. He said the decision had been made by the Taliban's high commanders, but he said it had not yet been decided when the women would be freed.
Two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials met yesterday for the second day of face-to-face talks over the fate of 21 South Korean hostages the militants have held since July 19. The two said earlier yesterday that the Koreans "definitely" would be released and possibly as soon as "today or tomorrow."
"The Taliban's big commanders have decided, for the sake of good relations between the Taliban and the Korean people, that, without any conditions, they are soon going to release two sick women," Mr. Ahmadi said.
Franz Rauchenstein, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said neither the Taliban nor South Korean officials had talked to the Red Cross about facilitating the release of hostages and that he could not confirm that two women were to be freed.
Marajudin Pathan, the local governor, said he had not heard that two women would be released and that it hadn't been discussed during negotiations yesterday. He said talks would continue today.
"Qari Ahmadi [the Taliban spokesman] is somewhere in Pakistan," Mr. Pathan said. "He's just running his mouth. They [the Taliban] are always giving contradictory statements."
Mr. Pathan said he didn't think the hostage crisis would be resolved by prisoner release, "but we'll see if it's by some other avenue." He refused to specify if that meant a ransom payment, though he has said previously he thought money would resolve the situation.
Mullah Qari Bashir, one of the Taliban negotiators, said the face-to-face talks were going well and that the Taliban were sticking with their original demand — that 21 Taliban prisoners be released from prisons in Afghanistan.
"God willing, the government [of Afghanistan] and the government of Korea will accept this," Mullah Bashir said outside the Ghazni office of the Afghan Red Cross, which is acting as a neutral intermediary. "Definitely, these people will be released. God willing, our friends [Taliban militants in prison] will be released."
Asked when the Koreans might be freed, he said: "Hopefully, today or tomorrow."
"I'm very optimistic. The negotiations are continuing on a positive track," Mullah Bashir said.
South Korea took a cautious approach to the negotiations.
"A quick release is a good thing, but we don't see that the possibility of the quick release is high," a South Korean official said in Seoul.
Another Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujaheed, said the government in Kabul gave the Taliban leaders — Mullah Bashir and Mullah Nasrullah — a written guarantee also signed by American and other foreign officials that the two Taliban would be safe.
Separately, Taliban militants attacked a small U.S. base in southern Afghanistan early yesterday for the second time in a week, and the U.S.-led coalition said the insurgents could be probing for intelligence for a future attempt to overrun the outpost.
Four militants were killed during the attack on Firebase Anaconda, the coalition said. The fighters' actions "could possibly be a rehearsal for a much bigger attack, possibly an attempt to completely overrun the post," the coalition said.
"The insurgents are paying a high price to test our response to attacks on our bases," said Army Capt. Vanessa R. Bowman, a coalition spokeswoman. "Though direct attacks are an unorthodox method for Taliban fighters, we remain prepared to fight them in any way they choose, though we find they are regularly unprepared for our methods of combat."
A group of 75 Taliban attacked Anaconda on Tuesday from three sides, a rare frontal assault that left 23 militants dead. Taliban militants usually shun head-on fights, preferring instead to attack foreign forces with suicide blasts and roadside bombs.