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S. Korea vents anger at U.S. over Afghan hostage crisis

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SEOUL — South Korea's frustration over the plight of Christian volunteers seized by the Taliban is starting to focus on the United States, a frequent target of resentment here.

Politicians and citizens of all persuasions are increasingly calling on Washington to help resolve the 15-day-old standoff, thinking the U.S. is the only country capable of pushing Afghanistan to meet the captors' demands so Taliban prisoners will be freed.

The U.S. has so far simply said it remains in contact with the South Korean and Afghan governments on the issue.

As the hostage crisis drags on, South Koreans are increasingly questioning what they have received from the U.S. in exchange for sending soldiers to support the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Analysts say the course of the crisis could affect a presidential election this year in this key U.S. ally in the shadow of China.

An anti-American backlash could boost liberals who have increasingly pushed for Seoul to assert its independence from Washington at the expense of the conservative pro-U.S. opposition that now holds a commanding lead.

Taliban militants kidnapped the 23 South Koreans on July 19, near Ghazni, Afghanistan. Demanding the release of militant prisoners, including some held by the United States, the hostage-takers have killed two male captives so far.

A delegation of top South Korean lawmakers left yesterday for Washington to press their case for an exception to the U.S. policy of refusing to make concessions to terrorists.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, said the United States is not ruling out military force to free the hostages.

Afghan officials said the volunteers' captors have agreed to meet with South Korea's ambassador, though they have not yet agreed on a venue.

In South Korea, a nightly candlelight vigil calling for the hostages' safe return recently moved to a new site in central Seoul next to the U.S. Embassy.

Some protesters have carried signs with a U.S. flag being smashed by a fist and appealed to the White House: "Bush: Don't kill, negotiate."

Candidates in South Korea's December presidential elections have been happy to play the populist, anti-American card, which finds resonance in a country often torn between greater powers.

"I want to ask what kind of judgment the U.S. government would have made if the 23 hostages were Americans," Chung Dong-young, a well-known liberal presidential hopeful, told reporters this week.

Tragedy and anti-Americanism have turned the course of a South Korean election before.

In 2002, two girls were killed in a traffic accident with a U.S. military vehicle.

The soldiers involved were exonerated, spawning weeks of anti-American fervor that rang out through election day and helped liberal President Roh Moo-hyun win a come-from-behind victory with a pledge not to "kowtow" to Washington.

Since taking office, Mr. Roh's liberal government and the conservative Bush administration have frequently hit dissonant notes, even while remaining close allies.

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