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Taliban extends hostage deadline

  • Story Highlights
  • Afghan Taliban militants extend the deadline for 23 kidnapped South Koreans
  • Army and police have surrounded the Taliban kidnappers
  • S. Korean delegation in Afghanistan to try to secure release of hostages
  • Unless demands are met, Taliban militants "will start killing the captives"
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KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- The Taliban on Monday gave 23 Korean hostages another 24 hours to live to allow the South Korean government to open direct talks with the kidnappers, a Taliban spokesman said on Monday.

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People hold candles Saturday night in Seoul during a vigil demanding the release of South Korean hostages.

Spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said negotiations with the Afghan government were going nowhere and South Korea had until 1430 GMT on Tuesday to agree to withdraw its 200 troops from Afghanistan. Unless it did so, the Taliban would start killing the captives.

It was the second time the Taliban had extended their deadline by 24 hours.

Yousuf said a German hostage the Taliban had said they had killed was still alive along with four Afghans and they were still held hostage.

The same spokesman had previously said two German engineers and five Afghans seized by the Taliban had been killed. He said the group holding them had told him they were about to kill the hostages as government troops were closing in on them and then he had lost touch with the militants as they made their escape.

Neither Germany nor South Korea has shown any sign they might give in to Taliban demands and pull their troops out, nor has Kabul indicated it would release Taliban prisoners as also demanded by the Islamist guerrillas.

"We will not give in to blackmail," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the kidnappings risk weakening public support for military involvement among the 37 nations contributing to peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan.

While NATO and U.S. forces say their troops, alongside the Afghan army, routinely rout Taliban guerrillas in combat, the insurgents are increasingly resorting to suicide bombs and kidnapping -- tactics that spread fear among Afghans and are designed to convince them the government cannot protect them.

Taliban guerrillas are spreading their area of operations north from their southern heartlands to provinces like Wardak and Ghazni where the Germans and Koreans were seized -- areas closer to the capital Kabul.

The 23 Korean Christians from the "Saemmul Church" in Bundang, a city outside South Korea's capital, Seoul, were in good health, the Taliban spokesman and government negotiator said.

While tribal elders tried to mediate between the militants and government negotiators, Afghan forces have surrounded the group of some 70 kidnappers in the Qarabagh area of Ghazni.

"Contacts with militants are being made through several channels," South Korea's Yonhap News quoted an unnamed government official as saying.

Most of the Koreans are in their 20s and 30s, and include nurses and English teachers.

A delegation of Korean diplomats were aiding the negotiations, a South Korean embassy official said.

"The diplomats from the embassy are still in negotiations with community elders of Ghazni province to solve the matter peacefully and secure the safe release of the hostages," he said.

South Korea ruled out a rescue bid without its say-so.

"There will be no rescue operation without our government's agreement ... a discussion over this matter has been made," said Seoul presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon.

"The government will not stop in our efforts to ensure the hostages' safety, which is our top priority," Yonhap quoted him as saying. "We're trying to find out what are the most substantial and final requests from the hostage takers."

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

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German authorities have seen the body of one German hostage who died in captivity in Afghanistan and it had gunshot wounds, a German Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

He said it was unclear what was the exact cause of death and added that Berlin wanted the remains returned to Germany as soon as possible for a closer examination. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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