The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the abduction of 18 South Korean Christians in Afghanistan, saying that they are currently being held for questioning on their activities before their fate is decided.
The abducted Christians were part of an evangelical and aid mission to one of the most insurgency-hit regions in Afghanistan when they were seized on Thursday, reported Agence France-Presse. According to The Associated Press, the group was on a bus traveling from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar when they were forcefully taken in Ghazni province.
"We are investigating, who are they, what are they doing in Afghanistan," Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, who claimed to be a Taliban spokesman, told AP Friday by satellite telephone. "After our investigation, the Taliban higher authorities will make a decision about their fate. Right now they are safe and sound."
Although the Taliban said they only captured 18 people, Ghazni province police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai told AP that the South Korean bus driver, released late Thursday, said there were 18 women and five men on the bus. The discrepancy between the two figures given has not yet been resolved.
The church members' bus was stopped by several dozen Taliban gunmen, who took over the vehicle and drove it into the desert before abandoning it and forcing the group to walk, Ahmadzai said. The driver was left with local villagers.
South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the group is part of the Saemmul Community Church in Bundang, just south of the South Korean capital Seoul.
An official at the Presbyterian church confirmed that 20 of its members were in Afghanistan for volunteer work. The group departed South Korea on July 13 and was scheduled to return on July 23, AP reported.
The governor of Ghazni province was angry that the South Korean team did not alert the local government of its presence or request protection.
"They must have thought they are in Korea, not in war-torn Afghanistan," said Gov. Mirajuddin Pattan, to AFP.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government has urged Christian groups and other Koreans to get out of the country and return home as it works to secure the release of the Christian hostages.
"The government plans to exert every possible effort so that our kidnapped citizens can return safely as soon as possible," said South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong to reporters in Seoul, according to AP.
Some 1,200 Christians, including hundreds of South Korean children, reportedly traveled to Afghanistan last summer.
"They are young Korean Christians who were engaged in short-term evangelistic activity and service for children in Kandahar," said Joseph Park, mission director of the Christian Council of Korea.
Oh Soo-In, a senior church administer at Saemmul Community Church, said the captured church group are in their 20s and 30s, as reported by AFP
"NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are serving in many dangerous places. We cannot turn away from poor people and children there just because of safety risks," said Park.
Thursday's kidnap incident came a day after the abduction of two German and five Afghans working on a dam project in central Wardak province. The Taliban has threatened to kill the two Germans if Berlin does not pull out its 3,000 troops serving in the NATO-led force in the next 24 hours.
Violence has increased recently in Afghanistan with last year being the bloodiest since the Taliban's expulsion in 2001. Over 3,300 people were killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to AP.