Conflicting claims on Taliban-held Korean hostages

GHAZNI, Afghanistan Sat Aug 11, 2007 11:28pm EDT

1 of 5. A vehicle passes by the Center of Afghan Red Crescent Society in the city of Ghazni province August 11, 2007. Afghanistan's Taliban said on Saturday they had freed two female South Korean hostages, but local and national government officials said they had no knowledge of such a release.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

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GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan's Taliban said on Saturday they had freed two female South Korean hostages, but local and national government officials said they had no knowledge of such a release.

"Today at 6.30 pm (1330 GMT), we released two of the female Korean hostages who were seriously ill, without any condition," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location.

"It's possible that at any moment they will reach Ghazni, it all depends on the transport. As far as we are concerned, they are free ... It's a gesture of good faith to the people of Korea and to the Korean delegation in Afghanistan."

However, the governor of Ghazni province, where the group of Korean church volunteers were seized on July 20 and are thought to be held, and a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said they had no knowledge of any release.

The Taliban have already killed two male hostages and threatened to kill more among the remaining 21, 18 of whom are women, unless Taliban prisoners are freed in exchange.

Earlier, the insurgents had said talks with Korean diplomats were going well and the hostages would be freed in a prisoner swap, although a provincial governor was less optimistic.

"We assure you and the whole world that all of the Koreans will be released and will go to their homes," Mawlavi Nasrullah, one of two Taliban negotiators in the talks, told reporters.

"And our prisoners will come to their homes," he said in the city of Ghazni, where the Taliban and Korean diplomats have been holding face-to-face talks since late Friday.

The second Taliban negotiator, Qari Bashir, said: "We are very hopeful that this issue will be resolved today or tomorrow inshallah (God willing)." He said the hostages were well.

IMMINENT SWAP?

The governor of Ghazni, who was present during the talks, said he did not know why the Taliban were predicting an imminent swap of hostages for Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government.

"I don't know anything about that. You should ask the Taliban. I don't know why the Taliban are so sure," Merajuddin Pattan told Reuters after the talks had finished for the day. "I don't know how long this drama is going to continue.

"We haven't got any clear result so far and the talks will continue tomorrow. The Taliban are still asking for the release of 21 prisoners. We'll see what will happen," he said.

A government official in Seoul also said the release of the hostages was not imminent.

The South Korean government is under intense domestic pressure to secure the safe release of the hostages, but has no power on its own to grant the kidnappers' demand for a swap with Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government.

Afghanistan's authorities and allies like the United States fear releasing Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Koreans would encourage more kidnappings.

Afghan officials have previously ruled out any prisoner swap and have threatened to free the hostages by force if necessary.

The talks are being held at a Red Crescent building in the city of Ghazni where the Afghan government has guaranteed the safety of the Taliban negotiators.

The Taliban say they have split the hostages into small groups and said any use of force to try to free them would put their lives at risk.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul and Cheon Jong-woo in Seoul)

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