- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) A top South Korean envoy headed to Afghanistan today, scrambling to save 22 of his country’s citizens held captive by Taliban kidnappers after the militants killed one hostage.

However, a local police chief said that the negotiations with the captors were difficult because their demands were unclear.

“One says let’s exchange them for my relative, the others say let’s release the women and yet another wants a deal for money,” said Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi, a local police chief in Qarabagh. “They have got problems among themselves.”

After conflicting reports Wednesday from Western and Afghan officials that possibly eight of the other hostages had been released, South Korean presidential spokesman Chun Ho-sun said the 22 were still believed held but were not suffering from health problems.

On Wednesday, authorities found the bullet-riddled body of 42-year-old Bae Hyung-kyu in Qarabagh district of Ghazni province, where the South Koreans were abducted July 19. Bae, a deputy pastor and a founder of Saemmul Presbyterian Church, was killed on his birthday, church officials said.

Bae was found with 10 bullet holes in his head, chest and stomach, said Abdul Rahman, a police officer. Another Afghan police official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said militants told him the hostage was sick and couldn’t walk and was therefore shot.

Bae previously had suffered from lung disease and had recovered but was still taking medicine, a church official told The Associated Press, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the ongoing standoff.

His mother, 68-year-old Lee Chang-suk, broke into tears as she watched the televised government announcement of her son’s death.

“I never thought it possible,” she said from her hometown on the southern island of Jeju, according to Yonhap news agency.

The kidnappers “will be held accountable for taking the life of a Korean citizen,” Baek Jong-chun, South Korea’s chief presidential secretary for security affairs, said in a statement before departing for Afghanistan to consult with top Afghan officials on how to secure the release of the remaining captives.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, said all 22 hostages were fine but claimed that Afghan authorities were not allowing South Korean officials to negotiate directly with the militants.

“Kabul officials asked us to give them more time,” Ahmadi said, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location. “The Taliban are not asking for money. We just want to exchange our prisoners for Korean hostages … When they release the Taliban we will release the hostages.”

Chun said South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had spoken with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, but did not disclose the contents of their discussion.

Ghazni police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai said that the Afghan negotiators were speaking with the Taliban over the phone, in a hope of securing the hostages release.

“We will not use force against the militants to free the hostages,” he said. “The best way in this case is dialogue.”

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