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South Korean hostages plead for their release

'All of us are in difficulty,' says one of the 22 aid workers held in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Talks continue.

July 27, 2007|M. Karim Faiez and Bruce Wallace | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Negotiations to free 22 South Korean Christian aid workers held hostage by the Taliban continued Thursday, amid reports of conflicting demands from the kidnappers and a desperate plea from the captive Koreans for their release.

The Korean and Afghan governments were struggling for a way out of the hostage crisis. One Korean was slain Wednesday after the Taliban accused officials of failing to negotiate seriously, and spokesmen purporting to represent the Taliban warned that the Islamist militia would kill more captives today if its demands weren't met.

Afghan officials accuse the Taliban of issuing confusing and changing demands, ranging from a prisoner exchange to money. Alarmed by the slaying of a hostage, South Korea dispatched a presidential envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital, to take charge of its delegation, though the government in Seoul said it would continue to leave direct talks to Afghan negotiators.

A purported Taliban spokesman denied that the militia's demands had shifted, and said it was not seeking a ransom. The fighters said they remained intent on getting Taliban prisoners released.

Meanwhile, in an interview conducted by cellphone and broadcast on CBS News and the BBC, one of the captured Koreans described her fellow hostages as being in declining spirits and urged the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners in exchange for their freedom.

"All of us are in difficulty," said a woman identified by Korean media as Im Hyun-joo, a 32-year-old former nurse. She spoke briefly before the phone was taken away. "Day by day, it is getting very difficult. Our situation is dangerous. You tell them to do something to get us released."

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who says he speaks for the Taliban, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that the hostages had been split into 11 groups to stave off rescue attempts. He also acknowledged that some of the hostages were suffering.

"It is true that some of the hostages are sick," Ahmadi said. "We have only two types of painkillers, and a food shortage is a problem."

The glimpse of the hostages' condition further rattled nerves in Korea, where emotions have swung between a cold disdain -- blaming the church group's naivete in traveling through an unsafe area -- and horror at the killing of pastor Bae Hyong-gyu, whose bullet-pocked body was found in the desert on his 42nd birthday Wednesday.

Bae was married and the father of a 9-year-old. He had entered theological school in his 30s and co-founded Saemmul Church south of Seoul in 1998. Although South Korean churches are known for their missionary work abroad, the church has insisted the kidnap victims were in Afghanistan only to provide aid and were not proselytizing.

In Kabul, the hostage crisis has added to the sense of deteriorating safety.

"The security situation is going from bad to worse," said Mohammad Sharif, a 22-year-old student waiting for a bus.

"Every day there is a new problem: We are hearing about fighting, kidnapping and the killing of innocent civilians either by the enemy -- the Taliban -- or by airstrikes of NATO forces.

"There are international forces everywhere in our country. We have Afghan security forces. But still the security is not good."

There are worries that the snatching of the Koreans may herald an escalation in the Taliban campaign to destabilize President Hamid Karzai's government.

In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 television, the Taliban's military commander, Mansoor Dadullah, vowed that kidnappings would continue. Dadullah was one of five Taliban prisoners freed in March when Karzai controversially agreed to swap them for an abducted Italian journalist.

"Kidnapping is a very successful policy, and I order all my mujahedin to kidnap foreigners of any nationality, wherever they find them," Dadullah said. "Then we should do the same kind of deal."

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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

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