GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A South Korean delegation arrived on Thursday in the Afghan province where 21 Koreans are held hostage in an attempt to hold direct talks with Taliban kidnappers and peacefully end the two-week ordeal.
The Taliban have killed two Korean hostages, accusing the Afghan government of not negotiating in good faith and ignoring their demand to release rebel prisoners. They have repeatedly threatened to kill the rest if their demands are not met.
The Taliban have insisted on direct talks with the Koreans, but Seoul has no power to free prisoners from Afghan jails.
“The team, including the Korean ambassador, which has come for the release of Korean nationals, say they have come to speak to the Taliban about choosing a venue for talks,” Ghazni provincial governor Mirajuddin Pathan told reporters.
“They say they have come to hold direct talks with the Taliban,” he said.
The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Korean church volunteers, 18 of them women, in Ghazni province on the main road south from Kabul on July 20. Two male Koreans have since been killed.
The South Korean government is under intense pressure to bring the captives home, but has no power to meet the key Taliban demand — the release of rebel prisoners.
The Afghan government has refused to give in to the demand, saying that would only encourage further abductions.
South Korea and the United States, which has more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, agreed not to use force to free the hostages, but Afghan troops warned villagers of a possible offensive in the area where the captives are held.
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met on the sidelines of a regional security forum in the Philippines on Thursday.
“They agreed that both countries will not use any kind of force,” a South Korean diplomat said.
The body of Shim Sung-min, 29, the second South Korean hostage to be shot, arrived home on Thursday. His family said it would donate his remains for medical research.
The remaining 21 hostages were alive, but two of the women were seriously ill and could die, a Taliban spokesman said.
The Taliban are engaged in a campaign of ambushes, suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks aimed at demonstrating to ordinary Afghans that their government and its Western backers are incapable of providing them with much-needed security.
Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of secretly supporting Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, a charge Pakistan strongly denies.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself a South Korean, called Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seeking his help to free the hostages. Ban was told that Pakistan had no links and no contacts with the Taliban, presidential spokesman General Rashid Qureshi said.
Seoul has called for “flexibility”, a comment analysts say is directed at the United States to sway the Afghan government to strike a deal with the kidnappers.
Eight South Korean parliamentarians also left for the United States to persuade Washington to help end the stand-off. Washington insists it makes no concessions to terrorists, but the politicians hope it might make an exception and help an ally.
A German engineer and four Afghans kidnapped a day before the Koreans are still being held by the Taliban, who are demanding Germany withdraw its 3,000 troops from Afghanistan. Berlin flatly rejected the demand.
One German seized with the group was found shot dead. In Berlin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday coroners had determined the cause of his death.
“Due to the extreme stress situation during the kidnapping he suffered a circulatory collapse,” said spokesman Martin Jaeger. “He was still alive when he was shot twice. After he was dead, four more shots were fired into the victim.”
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, John Ruwitch in Manila and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul