July 27, 2007 / 5:52 AM / 12 years ago

Korean hostages alive in Afghanistan, say Taliban

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The remaining 22 South Koreans held hostage in Afghanistan are alive, a Taliban spokesman said on Friday, and the group will not set further deadlines as it negotiates with the government on freeing them.

A photo released July 21 shows South Korean Christians posing for a group photograph before leaving for Afghanistan on July 13. REUTERS/Yonhap

A government official also said the Christian volunteers, whose leader was killed two days ago by their Taliban captors, were alive, adding an Afghan delegation was in talks with the militants.

“They are alive and fine,” Munir Mangal, a deputy interior minister who also heads an Afghan team trying to secure the freedom of the hostages, told reporters in Ghazni. Medicines had been sent for some of the captives who are ill, he added.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said the government had assured the group it would release eight members of the Taliban as part of an exchange deal for the freedom of a similar number of the hostages.

“They are alive. The talks are going on and we are not giving further deadlines for the government has assured us that it wants to resolve the issue through talks,” he told Reuters by phone from an undisclosed location.

Earlier, he had accused the government of “killing time and playing tricks” and had said the Taliban would kill the captives if rebel prisoners were not released by the Afghan government by Friday noon (0730 GMT).

On Wednesday, the Taliban killed the leader of the 23 volunteers they snatched last week from a bus on the main highway in Ghazni, which lies to the southwest of the capital Kabul.

But several previous deadlines have passed without them carrying out their threats to kill others.

South Korea’s chief presidential national security adviser, Baek Jong-chun, arrived in Afghanistan on Friday to step up efforts to free the hostages, an Afghan official said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to swap prisoners for hostages after being criticized for releasing five Taliban from jail in March in exchange for an Italian reporter.

The president and ministers have remained silent throughout the latest hostage ordeal.

One German and four Afghans snatched separately are also still being held hostage by the Taliban.

The past 18 months has seen rising violence in Afghanistan, with daily clashes between Taliban insurgents and Afghan and foreign troops.

Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul

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