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Taliban extend deadline for 23 Korean hostages

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  • NEW: Taliban extend hostage deadline by 24 hours
  • Afghan army and police surrounded Taliban kidnappers
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KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- The Taliban kidnappers of 23 Korean hostages on Sunday extended the deadline for the South Korean government to agree to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 24 hours.

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A woman wipes away tears Sunday in Sungnam. Members of her church were kidnapped in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban have extended the deadline for another 24 hours" until to 1430 GMT (10:30 a.m. EDT) Monday, spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location.

Afghan army and police surrounded the Taliban kidnappers while tribal elders tried to mediate between the militants and government negotiators, a Kabul-based Western security analyst said.

The 23 hostages belong to the "Saemmul Church" in Bundang, a city outside South Korea's capital, Seoul. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, and include nurses and English teachers.

Yousuf earlier had said insurgents would start killing the hostages if South Korea did not agree to withdraw its 200 military engineers and medics by 1430 GMT on Sunday and the Afghan government did not free Taliban prisoners.

The South Korean government has said it will withdraw its troops at the end of this year as planned.

"Afghan forces have surrounded the location of the kidnappers," the security analyst said. "They have no way to escape."

Afghan government negotiators were in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province where the Koreans were seized and tribal elders were mediating with the group of around 70 Taliban kidnappers, he said.

But Afghan forces were also poised to strike.

"They are awaiting orders to assault suspected locations," the Defense Ministry in Afghanistan said in a statement. "The operation will be launched if Defense Ministry authorities deem it necessary."

Taliban spokesmen Yousuf said fighters were holding the captives at different locations and any attempt to free them by force would put the Koreans' lives at risk.

A South Korean government delegation was also in the Afghan capital Kabul holding talks with government officials.

"We are working very hard considering the deadline," said a South Korean embassy official, who declined to give details.

The Taliban spokesman said militants had killed two German hostages on Saturday after Berlin refused to yield to similar demands for it to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

German authorities have cast doubt on the authority of the Taliban spokesman, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said analysis suggested one of the German hostages was alive while the other had died of "stress and strain".

Police found the body of one of the Germans in Wardak province, north of Ghazni, and doctors conducting a post-mortem concluded he died of a gunshot wound, the security analyst said.

The online edition of German weekly Der Spiegel said the dead German hostage, identified Ruediger B., was diabetic and died after his kidnappers failed to get him the necessary medications through intermediaries.

The Koreans are the biggest group of foreigners kidnapped so far in the Taliban campaign to oust the Western-backed government and force out foreign troops.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said on Saturday the Koreans were providing free medical or educational services with no missionary intentions.

Tearful relatives prayed for their safe release at their church on Sunday.

"My kids went to the war-ravaged country to do volunteer work, carrying love," said Seo Jung-bae, 57, whose son and daughter were both taken hostage. "I feel like chopping off my foot for letting you go. I hope you will return to us and the country without a single hair damaged."

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The area south of Kabul where the Germans and Koreans were seized this week has seen a marked escalation of violence in the last month as Taliban militants have moved in from the south.

Residents say government troops only hold the major towns and much of the countryside is beyond their control. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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