Afghan Officials, S. Korea Dispel Hostage Rescue Mission Rumors

The Afghan defense ministry, the U.S.-led coalition, and South Korea say they are unaware of any rescue operation for 21 remaining Korean Christian hostages held by Taliban insurgents after a district chief said Wednesday a rescue mission was imminent.

Khawaja Seddiqi, chief of the Qarabagh district in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, where originally 23 Korean hostages were kidnapped, reported that leaflets were dropped in Ghazni warning civilians in the area of a pending assault.

"The national army has dropped leaflets from helicopters telling people in several districts to evacuate their houses because it wants to launch an operation," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Seddiqi had reportedly said the operation was in connection to the hostage situation, according to Reuters.

Although the defense ministry acknowledges the leaflets, they have said the leaflets have "no links to the South Korean hostages issue" and referred to a routine exercise to take place in a few week, according to AFP.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said the leaflets were dropped in order to avoid civilian casualties. "This operation has no relation to the Korean kidnapping case," he said, according to The Associated Press.

The U.S.-lead coalition has also said it was "not aware of any operation at this time and we are not able to confirm the validity of any reports that there is a rescue operation under way."

The South Korean embassy, furthermore, expressed its skepticism over the report.

"We have no information about any operation. We will check it out, but we doubt it. Before launching any operation, we must be informed," a South Korean embassy official told AFP.

Meanwhile, tension is building as Taliban insurgents say Qarabagh has been surrounded by soldiers for days.

Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said Taliban fighters were "ready to answer with force and if there's any pressure on us, the lives of the hostages will be in danger," according to AFP.

Taliban fighters have repeatedly warned that any use of force to rescue the hostages will result in the Koreans' death.

The South Korean government and family members of the hostages also said they are opposed to any military operation efforts to free the hostages which would jeopardize their lives.

"There is no reason or need to give up on dialogue at this point," said Cheon Ho-sun, a spokesman for South Korea's president.

"There won't be any military operations without our consent," he assured.

Taliban insurgents are demanding Afghanistan release rebel prisoners in exchange for the Korean hostages.

However, Afghanistan has said releasing Taliban fighters is not an option.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was criticized by the United States and other Western countries for giving into terrorism after he released five Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian reporter in March. He had vowed that the exchange would be a one-time deal.

But South Korea and the families of the hostages are appealing to the United States, which has a strong political influence on Afghanistan, to make an exception for the case of the Korean hostages.

About 100 relatives of the hostages and concerned citizens gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul for about an hour Wednesday. Embassy staff said their pleas will be conveyed to Washington.

"We will hold on to any small hope to save them," Ryu Haeng-sik, husband of hostage Kim Yoon-yong, 35, told AP outside the embassy, his eyes red from weeping and fatigue.

"We cannot say we're relieved, but there is no other way but to believe their words, that they're going to do their best," he said.

Meanwhile, a Korean delegation will arrive in Washington Thursday to meet with U.S. lawmakers. The delegation plans to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. They also plan to meet U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's former foreign minister.

Nearly a dozen deadlines have passed since the 23 Korean Christian volunteers were abducted in Ghazni on July 19, with the most recent deadline passing Wednesday noon (3:30 a.m. EDT). Two male hostages have been killed so far with the latest death on Monday.

Purported Taliban spokesman Ahmadi said Wednesday the remaining 21 hostages are still alive, but most are sick with two female captives very ill and facing possible death from their illness, according to AP.

The kidnapping of the 23 South Korean Christians is the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.