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Taleban Negotiators Say South Korean Hostages May Be Freed Soon

11 August 2007

Taleban insurgents say they may release 21 South Korean hostages more than three weeks after they kidnapped them. The word came as the insurgents held a second day of face-to-face talks with South Korean officials in Afghanistan. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Kabul.

Taleban negotiators told reporters Saturday that the 21 hostages could be released as early "as today or tomorrow."

However, the negotiators also said they thought a number of Taleban militants being held prisoner by the Afghan government would also be released. To date, the Afghan government has said it would not exchange prisoners for hostages.

Face-to-face talks between the Taleban and South Korean officials are being held in the Afghan city of Ghazni, in the same province where 23 South Koreans were kidnapped on July 19th. Two men in the group have already been executed by their captors.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary says the government is providing security for the talks in Ghazni, but is not directly involved.

"I cannot go into too much details about the issue [but] this much I can say: Afghan representatives were not in that meeting," said Bashary.

Provincial governor Merajuddin Pattan says the government offered Taleban leaders safe passage to attend the negotiations.

"We told them that we would guarantee the negotiation process," said Pattan. "There would be no operation against them until this dilemma is solved."

Four South Korean delegates and two Taleban leaders are involved in the talks, which started Friday evening in a heavily guarded Afghan Red Cross office.

The insurgents have said all along that they would kill the hostages, most of whom are women, unless the government frees a number of pro-Taleban prisoners.

The Afghan government has said from the start it would not exchange prisoners for hostages, and it is not clear that the South Korean negotiators could promise the release of any Taleban.

However, Afghan authorities in touch with the Taleban say the militants are also seeking a ransom payment for the hostages' release.

In an incident earlier this year, Afghanistan released five top Taleban prisoners in exchange for an Italian journalist being held hostage.

There was widespread criticism of that agreement, by U.S. officials among others, who argued that it would only provoke more kidnappings in the future.

South Korea, however, has pleaded for greater flexibility, and sought U.S. support for the effort to free the 21 remaining hostages.

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