Sunday, July 29, 2007

GHAZNI, Afghanistan — A female hostage among the remaining 22 South Koreans held by Taliban fighters appealed yesterday for a speedy end to their ordeal, as a senior Afghan official said force may be used to free them if talks fail.

Several Afghan elders and a former member of the Taliban joined the negotiations yesterday, but no immediate progress was reported by either side.

The woman, one of 18 female hostages among the South Korean Christian volunteers kidnapped in Afghanistan more than a week ago, spoke to Reuters news agency on the mobile phone of a Taliban fighter.

“We are tired and being moved from one location to another,” she said in broken Dari, one of the main languages in Afghanistan.

“We are kept in separate groups and are not aware of each other. We ask the Taliban and the government to release us,” she said.

Pronunciation of her name could not be understood by a Reuters reporter who spoke to her.

Earlier Munir Mangal, a deputy interior minister, said negotiators were attempting to hold more talks with the Taliban.

“We believe in the talks, and if dialogue fails, then we will resort to other means,” he told Reuters. When asked if that meant use of force, he replied: “Certainly.”

Mr. Mangal, who leads a government team tasked to secure the release of the South Koreans, said mediators included Islamic clergy who were trying to persuade the Taliban to free the hostages without conditions.

He ruled out the Taliban demand to free insurgent captives held by Kabul.

“We are trying to finish this work through understanding without any conditions,” he said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to swap prisoners for hostages after being criticized for releasing five Taliban from jail in March in exchange for an Italian reporter.

But the president and government ministers have remained silent throughout the latest hostage ordeal.

One German and four Afghans snatched separately also are still being held hostage by the Taliban.

After the meeting yesterday, the elders and clerics returned to their respective villages to ask other community leaders to join them in talks with local Taliban.

“My message to the South Koreans, in particular to the families of these men and women being held by the Taliban, is this: We are optimistic. Don’t worry. We are doing our best. … Please be patient. A lot of people are involved today,” Ghazni lawmaker Habib Rahman, who attended the gathering, told the Associated Press.

Those joining the talks included a former Taliban commander — Abdul Salaam Rocketi, now a member of parliament — and several leaders from around Qarabagh, where the hostages were kidnapped July 19 on Afghanistan’s main highway from Kabul to Kandahar.

“Today we are hopeful to get a good result because more and more elders have gathered,” Qarabagh police chief Khwaja Mohammed said.

However, purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi complained that the delegation of Afghan leaders “doesn’t have the power to release prisoners.”

He said the Taliban wanted the hostages “to go home safe,” but that they first wanted 23 Taliban militants released from Afghan prisons. Twenty-three South Koreans originally were kidnapped; one was fatally shot, though it was not clear why.

A South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong-chun, had hoped to hold talks with Mr. Karzai yesterday, but that meeting did not take place, a South Korean Embassy official in Kabul told the AP.

Mr. Ahmadi said the Taliban hoped the South Korean envoy would persuade the Afghan government to make the prisoner swap.

“If they don’t release the Taliban prisoners, then the Taliban does not have any option other than to kill the Korean hostages,” he said, reiterating an earlier threat.

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