Afghan troops are ready to free the remaining 21 South Koreans held by Taliban militants by force, said the Afghan interior ministry spokesman Wednesday.
With negotiations at a deadlock and the Taliban warning of its growing impatience, officials are pondering more carefully the option of a rescue operation.
Afghanistan has "significant" numbers of troops in Ghazni province – where the Christian volunteers were abducted – and "We're ready for an operation," said interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary, according to Agence France-Presse.
"We've the ability to carry out an operation," said Bashary. "The reason why we haven't yet is because we don't want to risk their lives, and the Korean government has also demanded us to not launch a military operation," he said.
Both the United States and South Korea have agreed that a rescue mission should be used only as a last resort because of the danger involved.
Taliban captors have warned that they would kill the hostages if a military rescue occurs. It is said that suicide bombers are guarding the hostages and would readily detonate themselves if confronted with a government rescue operation.
Afghanistan's rugged mountainous terrain coupled with lack of specific details on the buildings where the hostages are being held further add to the difficulty of a successful operation.
Moreover, the hostages are divided into five to six groups and are frequently relocated making it difficult for rescuers to pinpoint their exact locations.
According to Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, "any kind of rescue mission would be extremely difficult…The odds are good that you'd kill a lot of Afghan innocent civilians, the odds are good you'd get the Korean hostages killed and the odds are good that the rescuers could take heavy casualties themselves," he predicted to AFP.
He also agreed with Bush and Karzai that a prisoner swap is not a good idea.
"It is a pretty shortsighted policy ... If you reward hostage taking now, you have not gotten rid of the problem, all you have done is set up another such episode a little down the road," Biddle said.
"I don't see a lot of really attractive options here," noted the foreign relations expert.
As a result of the lack of feasible options, negotiation is still considered the best way to secure the release of the hostages.
Randy Spivey, executive director of U.S.-based National Hostage Survival Training Center, recommends continued dialogue at all levels, including the United Nations, according to Yonhap news agency in Seoul.
"Steps like these can be very beneficial in opening up dialogue. Keeping dialogue open is very important," Spivey said.
It has been about three weeks since the group of South Korean Christians, originally numbering 23, was kidnapped by Taliban militants in Afghanistan's insurgency-plagued Ghazni province. The church group was on its way to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens when their bus was hijacked on July 19.
The leader of the aid group, Bae Hyung-kyu, was the first victim, found dead July 25 with 10 bullet holes in his body. The second victim, 29-year-old Shim Sung-min, was killed last Monday and his funeral ceremony was this past Saturday.
"We do not want world order and principles to be undermined for the sake of the release and safe return of the Koreans," said the hostage families, according to Reuters Tuesday. "Saving these people, however, will also serve as an opportunity to reaffirm the precious values of humanity as a whole," they said.
"We sincerely ask you, with tears in our eyes, to understand the noble intention of the Korean volunteers who, despite all the dangers and difficulties, wanted to spread sharing and love in a place battered by poverty and conflicts."
The kidnapping of the 23 Korean Christians was the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.