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Kidnapped South Korean is slain in Afghan desert

The Taliban says it still holds 22 members of a church group, whose trip has drawn criticism.

July 26, 2007|M. Karim Faiez and Bruce Wallace | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Taliban insurgents shot a South Korean hostage and dumped his body in the lawless central Afghan desert Wednesday, raising increased fears for the safety of 22 other Koreans seized while traveling through the region last week and sending shudders through the community of foreign aid workers in the country.

The Afghan government responded by immediately barring all foreigners from traveling outside Kabul, the capital, without police permission.

The Taliban said it had executed the man to protest a lack of progress in negotiations with the Afghan government over the fate of the kidnapped Koreans. A purported Taliban spokesman told international news agencies that the government had refused to release eight Taliban prisoners in return for the hostages, and warned that the militants would kill more of their victims if their demands weren't met.

Another Taliban deadline passed early today without word on the fate of the other kidnapped Koreans. Reports that at least eight of the Koreans had been freed could not be confirmed. The Taliban denied that it had released anybody.

The South Koreans were taken hostage Thursday while traveling by public bus along a highway between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, where they were to work at a nursery school and hospital. The remaining 18 women and four men, most of them in their 20s and 30s, are members of the Saemmul Protestant church in Bundang, just south of Seoul, though both the church and the Korean government insisted that the abductees' visit to Afghanistan had no religious motives.

Afghan police said the slain man had been shot 10 times in the head, chest and stomach. Korean media identified the victim as Bae Hyong-gyu, 42, a pastor and leader of the group.

"The government and the people of South Korea condemn the kidnapping of innocent civilians and the atrocity of harming a human life," said Baek Jong-chun, presidential chief national security advisor, in a nationally televised statement. "Harming innocent civilians can never be justified, and we will never forgive this kind of inhumane act."

Grief-stricken family members and supporters had gathered at the church to await news on the hostages. Reports have been sketchy, with the Korean media not present in Kabul and the government apparently relying on Afghan authorities to act as intermediaries to bring an end to the kidnapping.

Confusion was sown by the initial Taliban demand that South Korea withdraw its force of roughly 200 members, many of them reconstruction engineers, from Afghanistan. The government in Seoul had already committed itself late last year to ending its Afghan operations and bringing its forces home by the end of 2007.

But public anger in Korea was muted by a widespread sense that the church group should not have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Internet chat forums abounded with criticism of the kidnapping victims. And the unsympathetic mood was stoked by the release of a photo to the Korean media showing three of the victims on their departure from Inchon airport flashing smiles and peace signs in front of a government poster at the airport warning against all travel to Afghanistan.

A spate of kidnappings in Afghanistan has heightened tensions among foreign aid workers. Two German citizens were snatched by the Taliban last week, one of whom was found dead of uncertain causes. The Taliban has demanded that Germany, too, withdraw its 3,000 troops operating in Afghanistan in exchange for the hostage, a deal the German government has rejected.

A Danish journalist who is an ethnic Afghan was briefly held Wednesday before being released.

The kidnappings have alarmed the aid community in Kabul, although here, too, there were questions about what the Koreans were doing on such a dangerous stretch of highway.

"People are really unhappy about what has happened and hope they are released, but these Koreans were also somewhat at fault," said Abdul Kebar, acting director of CARE International in Kabul. "That has been a dangerous spot for the last two years, and we have banned even [Afghan] nationals from traveling on that road for a year now. I'm amazed they took that risk."

Kebar said requiring foreigners to get permission to travel outside Kabul is a good thing, forcing them to get a security briefing before they leave the relative safety of the capital and reducing the opportunities for further kidnappings.

Aid agencies say their work outside Kabul will continue to be carried out by Afghan staff members, who are not subject to the travel restrictions.

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