Afghanistan: S. Korean envoy scrambles to save 22 hostages

Afghans negotiate with Taliban but police chief rules out force; bullet-riddled body of captive found Wednesday.

S Korean hostages 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
S Korean hostages 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A top envoy from South Korea headed to Afghanistan on Thursday, scrambling to save 22 South Koreans held captive by Taliban kidnappers after the militants killed one hostage. An Afghan police chief ruled out using force to free the remaining captives and said that Afghan negotiators were speaking with the Taliban over the phone, hoping to secure their release. 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. The victim 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. 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. 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 not suffering from health problems. 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." "We are hopeful that by noon today we will reach some sort of deal for the release of six up to eight people," Ahmadzai said, without giving more 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.