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South Koreans rally for hostages

- 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."

Ahmadzai said he was hopeful about reaching "some sort of deal for the release of six up to eight people" later Thursday, without giving an explanation for his optimism.

Chun said that both governments were cooperating and that an Afghan official had told South Korea earlier Thursday that Kabul intended to negotiate with the Taliban. He said Seoul was aware of the Taliban's current demands but declined to specify them.

Seoul also repeated its call that no rescue mission be launched that could endanger the captives further.

"We oppose military operations and there won't be military operations that we do not consent to," Chun said.

Marajudin Pathan, the governor of Ghazni province, said militants have given a list of eight Taliban prisoners who they want released in exchange for eight Koreans.

An Afghan official involved in the negotiations earlier said a large sum of money would be paid to free eight of the hostages. The official also spoke on condition he not be identified, citing the matter's sensitivity. No other officials would confirm this account.

Foreign governments are suspected to have paid for the release of hostages in Afghanistan in the past, but have either kept it quiet or denied it outright. The Taliban at one point demanded that 23 jailed militants be freed in exchange for the Koreans.

The South Koreans, including 18 women, were kidnapped while on a bus trip through Ghazni province on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan's main thoroughfare.

South Korea has banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan in the wake of the kidnappings. Seoul also asked Kabul not to issue visas to South Koreans and to block their entry into the country.

Because of a recent spike in kidnappings of foreigners including an attempt against a Danish citizen Wednesday Afghan police announced that foreigners were no longer allowed to leave the Afghan capital without their permission.

The South Korean church that the abductees attend has said it will suspend at least some of its volunteer work in Afghanistan. It also stressed that the Koreans abducted were not involved in any Christian missionary work, saying they provided only medical and other volunteer aid to distressed people in the war-ravaged country.

Two Germans were also kidnapped last week. One was found dead and the other apparently remains captive. A Danish reporter of Afghan origin escaped a kidnap attempt in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Danish Foreign Ministry said.

Associated Press Writer Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.