A purported spokesman for the Taliban announced Monday that the Islamic militant group had extended its deadline for the lives of 22 South Korean Christian hostages to 1130 GMT (7:30 a.m. EDT), four more hours to the deadline they had set Sunday.
"Because of the team [of Afghan negotiators]'s requests ... the Taliban have extended the deadline to 16:00 local time," Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters by phone from an undisclosed location.
He also reported that all of the remaining captives were still alive.
It has been over a week since Taliban militants abducted 23 South Korean Christians, including 18 women, in insurgency-prone Ghazni province. The church group was on their way to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens when their bus was hijacked last Thursday.
Since the abduction – the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 – one hostage has been killed. The leader of the aid group, Bae Hyung-kyu, was found dead this past Wednesday with 10 bullet holes in his body.
Although the kidnappers have threatened to kill the remaining captives if their demands are not met and have reported that some of them were in poor health, Afghan officials have said they are optimistic the hostages will be freed without further bloodshed.
"Today we are hopeful to get a good result because more and more elders have gathered from Ghazni," said Qarabagh police chief Khwaja Mohammad on Saturday, according to AP. "I hope the Taliban will listen to these negotiations now because they are neutral people – elders from around Qarabagh district."
On Saturday, Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former Taliban member who is now part of the Afghan parliament, joined the negotiating team for the release of the hostages.
Ghazni officials said the respected elders and clerics would explain to Taliban militants that taking hostage is unacceptable in Islam and Afghan culture.
"A lot of people are involved today. Inshallah (if God wills it), they will not kill them," said Ghazni lawmaker Habib Rahman, according to AP.
Two days of meetings between elders of Qarabagh district in Ghazni and a delegation of senior officials from Kabul, had yielded no immediate results, however, prompting the Taliban to set another deadline to give their threats added weight.
"Since the talks between us, the Kabul administration and Korean government have reached deadlock and they are not honest ... hence, we will start killing the hostages if they do not start releasing our prisoners by tomorrow at 12 o'clock," Yousuf told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location when announcing Monday's 0730 GMT deadline.
So far, Afghan authorities are refusing to release rebel prisoners after the government came under criticism in March for freeing five Taliban in exchange for an Italian reporter
"Our goal is to seek ways on how we can free the hostages without compromising our laws and regulations in regards with such cases," police chief Alishah Ahmadzai of Ghazni province said to AFP.
A deputy interior minister on Saturday told Reuters that force might be used if talks fail, but Taliban spokesman Yousuf warned against use of force, saying Sunday that "it will jeopardize the lives of the hostages and the Taliban will resist till the last gasp of their breath."
Several foreigners have been held this year by Taliban militants waging a deadly insurgency against the Western-backed government that replaced the hardline regime driven from power in late 2001.