- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 28, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — A purported Taliban spokesman warned yesterday that some of the 22 South Korean hostages were in bad health and crying.

Speaking hours after the passage of the latest deadline, he said the militia has not set a new one as negotiations with tribal leaders were proceeding.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the kidnappers, said by phone that the group still insisted on exchanging Taliban prisoners for the captives, who could be killed if the demand was not met.

Some of the South Koreans were “not in good condition,” Mr. Ahmadi said. “I don’t know if the weather is not good for them, or our food. The women hostages are crying. The men and women are worried about their future.”

One hostage, the Rev. Bae Hyung-kyu, 42, was found dead of multiple gunshots on Wednesday in Qarabagh, the district where the hostages were being held.

Local tribal elders and clerics continued telephone negotiations with the captors and were struggling with conflicting demands that included ransom as well as the release of Taliban prisoners.

“There are still a lot of problems among them,” Qarabagh police Chief Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi said. “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.”

Mr. Ahmadi denied that.

“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,” he said.

Earlier, the Taliban spokesman said the Koreans would be killed if rebel prisoners were not released by the Afghan government by noon yesterday.

It was not clear how many militants the Taliban want freed, or which ones.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s chief presidential national security adviser, Baek Jong-chun, arrived for talks with President Hamid Karzai and other top officials, and Afghan officials said they remained upbeat about the chances of freeing the hostages without further bloodshed.

“We hope we will have a good result, but I don’t know if they will be released today. I don’t think they will be,” said Shirin Mangal, a spokesman for the governor of Ghazni province, where the Koreans were taken.

In Seoul, a Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the captives were still thought to be safe and that officials were trying to get medicine and other items delivered to them.

Mr. Ahmadi said the hostages were being held in small groups in various locations and were being fed bread, yogurt and rice.

In Washington, U.S. officials demanded the immediate release of the South Koreans.

“What should happen is that these people should be released, unconditionally, immediately and unharmed, back to South Korean authorities, so they can return back to their families,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The South Koreans, including 18 women, were kidnapped while traveling by bus on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan’s main thoroughfare.

Their church said the captives were not involved in any Christian missionary work in Afghanistan and had provided only medical and other volunteer aid to distressed people in the war-ravaged country. It said it will suspend some of its volunteer work in Afghanistan.

The widow of the slain pastor made a tearful appeal yesterday for the release of the remaining hostages, saying she does not want other families to experience her grief.

“I sincerely hope that the pain the families are already having enough won’t deepen with more sadness,” Kim Hee-yeon told reporters. “I sincerely hope there won’t be any more victims.”

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