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Afghans deny hostage rescue attempt

Military says troop movements routine, not aimed at kidnappers.

August 02, 2007|Emal Haidary and Bruce Wallace | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Afghan forces tried to pressure Taliban militants holding 21 South Korean hostages Wednesday, dropping leaflets from helicopters that warned civilians in the area to move to government-controlled zones because of impending military action.

The Afghan government said the troop movements were an expansion of an operation and did not presage an attack to try to free the South Koreans. A South Korean Foreign Ministry official also said today that Seoul and Washington had rejected the option of a rescue. But the heightened military activity was clearly designed to rattle the kidnappers, who have been able to dictate the direction of events.

A purported Taliban spokesman said the hostages would be killed if the government tried to free them by force. The South Koreans are believed to have been dispersed into smaller groups, making any rescue operation more difficult.

"If the government launches a military operation, which means they don't want it solved peacefully, we will kill the hostages," said Qari Yousef Ahmadi.

The Taliban have killed two of the Christian aid workers since snatching them July 19 as they traveled by bus in lawless Ghazni province. The militants are demanding the release of Taliban prisoners in exchange for the captives.

They have set, and let pass, several deadlines for a deal to be done, including one Wednesday that appeared to slip by without further killings.

The Afghan military has claimed since the outset of the crisis that it has surrounded the Qarabagh district where the hostages are being held, though it has maintained it has no intention of attacking.

Zahir Murad, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the activity in the area was a routine operation that merely had been expanded.

"To avoid civilian casualties, the army has dropped leaflets to warn people to move into safer places," he said.

Sayed Mahmood Gailani, a member of an Afghan negotiating team, said the militants had been asked through elders to extend the talks for 48 hours.

Ahmadi said Wednesday that the remaining hostages were in poor health, with two women so ill they might die.

The news prompted despair in South Korea, where several captives' relatives said they were losing hope. Some met with U.S. Embassy officials in Seoul to plead for American help.

Some South Korean opinion has turned against the United States as the crisis stretches on, viewing Washington's refusal to consider a prisoner swap as equivalent to a death sentence for the hostages.

The Taliban has said some of the prisoners it wants released are held at the U.S. Bagram airbase. And there is a widespread sense that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is merely following American instructions.

"The Americans here are policy-makers and decision-makers, and Karzai cannot move a step forward without their consultation," said Waheed Muzhda, an Afghan political analyst. "That is true even now in this hostage crisis."

On Wednesday, South Korea appealed for direct negotiations with the Taliban, a proposal that Ahmadi, at least, did not rule out.

"They cannot meet the hostages, but if they want further negotiations the doors are open for them," he said.

But there remained a deep well of anger in South Korea toward the hostages for putting themselves in danger with what is seen as a naive adventure in which they ignored obvious risks.

Park Eun-jo, head pastor of the aid workers' Saemmul Church south of Seoul, seemed to sense that mood, issuing an official statement of apology Wednesday.

We are "immensely sorry for causing much concern to the Korean people," he said, adding that he was "begging for forgiveness from the Korean people, especially to the bereaved families."

All the church's remaining volunteers in Afghanistan were withdrawing and coming home, he said.

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

Special correspondent Haidary reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Wallace from New Delhi. Times staff writer Jinna Park in Seoul contributed to this report.

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