Taliban says 21 Korean hostages still alive
Published Wednesday, August 1, 2007 12:04PM EDT
GHAZNI, Afghanistan - A Taliban deadline for the lives of the remaining 21 South Korean hostages passed Wednesday with a purported militant spokesman saying none had been harmed, while the Afghan army dropped leaflets in the area warning residents of an upcoming military mission.
The military said the mission was weeks away and wasn't connected to the hostages, denying media reports claiming a rescue attempt had been launched.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, told The Associated Press after the noon deadline passed that the remaining 21 hostages were still alive, though two female hostages were very sick and could die from illness.
On Tuesday, Afghan police found the body of a second hostage slain since the church-group volunteers were seized two weeks ago. Ahmadi had said eight militant prisoners, including some held by the United States at its Bagram base, had to be released by noon or more hostages would die.
On Wednesday, Ahmadi said Mullah Omar, the Taliban's elusive leader whose whereabouts are not known, had appointed three members of the Taliban's high council to oversee the hostage situation and they would have the power to order them slain at any time.
The Taliban has extended several previous deadlines by hours or days. However, the militia has killed two South Korean male captives several hours after two previous deadlines.
South Korea said it would send a parliamentary delegation to the United States to seek cooperation in resolving the crisis, and relatives of the hostages pleaded for help at Washington's embassy in the South Korean capital.
The 23 South Koreans were kidnapped while riding a bus on July 19 on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. They are the largest group of foreign hostages taken in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.
Afghan National Army helicopters, meanwhile, dropped leaflets in Ghazni province -- where the South Koreans were kidnapped -- warning people of an upcoming military operation.
Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said the leaflets were dropped in order to avoid civilian casualties. "This operation has no relation to the Korean kidnapping case," he said.
"In order for you to be safe and not be affected by the operation, we call on you to move to secure government-controlled areas," the leaflets warned.
The South Korean government and family members reiterated their opposition to any military attempt to free the hostages.
"There is no reason or need to give up on dialogue at this point," said Cheon Ho-sun, a spokesman for South Korea's president. "There won't be any military operations without our consent."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "It's a difficult situation and it's one we want resolved in the best way possible, which is unharmed and safe to their families."
Both the families and the South Korean government have appealed for an exception to the international practice of refusing to make concessions to hostage-takers.
The Afghan government, however, said releasing militant prisoners was "not an option." Afghanistan was criticized by the U.S. and other Western countries earlier this year when it released five Taliban prisoners to win the freedom of an Italian hostage.
In South Korea, four major political parties agreed to send a joint delegation of seven lawmakers to Washington on Thursday. The delegation plans to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. They also intend to see UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's former foreign minister.
The parties called on the United States to take an "active and positive attitude to prevent the loss of human lives."
Relatives of the hostages visited the U.S. Embassy in Seoul for about an hour and were told their appeal for help would be passed along to Washington.
"We will hold on to any small hope to save them," Ryu Haeng-sik, husband of hostage Kim Yoon-yong, 35, told The Associated Press outside the embassy, his eyes red from weeping and fatigue.
"We cannot say we're relieved, but there is no other way but to believe their words, that they're going to do their best," he said.
About 100 people protested outside the embassy to demand U.S. action, some carrying banners reading, "Bush: Don't kill, negotiate" and "Bush, you have responsibility." Hundreds of police in riot gear surrounded the demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of the remaining South Korean captives, and accused the Taliban of committing war crimes by taking and killing the hostages.
The New York-based rights group said the Taliban have kidnapped at least 41 Afghan civilians this year and killed at least 23 of them. The rest are missing.