Taliban: Hostages May Be Released Soon

A Taliban leader said Saturday that negotiations for the release of 21 South Korean hostages were going well and that the hostages would "definitely" be released even as soon as "today or tomorrow."

"God willing the government (of Afghanistan) and the government of Korea will accept this," said Mullah Qari Bashir outside the Afghan Red Cross Office in the Ghazni province, according to The Associated Press. "Definitely these people will be released. God willing our friends (Taliban militants in prison) will be released."

When asked when the Koreans might be released, Bashir replied, "Hopefully today or tomorrow."

Taliban representatives and South Korean officials met face-to-face for the first time for a four-hour talk on Friday. The rebels have not changed their demands and are still calling for the release of 21 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the remaining Korean hostages.

"I'm very optimistic. The negotiations are continuing on a positive track," Bashir said.

However, South Korea still has reservations on how soon the captives will be freed.

"A quick release is a good thing but we don't see that the possibility of the quick release is high," a South Korean official in Seoul told AP on condition of anonymity.

Earlier, Seoul had repeatedly conveyed to the Taliban that it is virtually powerless in granting the rebels' demand to free prisoners held by the Afghan government and U.S. forces.

"Through our contacts, our foremost goal is to make it clear that there is a limit as to what our government can do to meet their demands of releasing the prisoners," said presidential spokesman Chun Ho-sun, according to Reuters.

Kabul and Washington, who are holding the Taliban prisoners, reasserted earlier this week that a prisoner-hostage exchange was out of the question in resolving the crisis. Both governments explained that such an exchange would likely increase kidnappings in the insurgency-wracked country and encourage terrorism.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was criticized by the United States and other Western countries earlier this year 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.

The local governor, Marajudin Pathan, commented that the situation will likely be resolved through ransom payment, although the Taliban leaders Saturday said they are still demanding the 21 rebel prisoners.

Four South Korean officials met with two top Taliban leaders again Saturday for a second round of face-to-face talks over the hostage situation. South Korea has declined to give details of the meetings, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The two Taliban leaders were guaranteed safety in a written pledge given to them by the Kabul government signed by Afghan, American and other foreign officials.

On July 19, the Taliban abducted 23 Korean Christian volunteers in the insurgency-plagued Ghazni province. Out of the aid group, 16 are females, according to Agence France-Presse. The church group was on its way to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens when their bus was hijacked.

Since their kidnapping, two male hostages have been killed. 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 body of the second victim, 29-year-old Shim Sung-min, was found July 30.

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