SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea said Thursday that 22 hostages remained in Taliban captivity after a Korean pastor was killed by the militant group in Afghanistan, drawing outrage from Seoul that warned those responsible would face consequences.
The remaining captives were not believed to suffering from health problems, said presidential spokesman Chun Ho-sun.
Chun's comments followed conflicting reports from Western and Afghan officials that possibly eight of the hostages had been released.
He said South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had spoken again Thursday with his Afghan counterpart, but did not disclose the contents of their discussion.
However, Chun added that both governments were cooperating and that an Afghan official had told South Korea earlier Thursday that Kabul intended to negotiate with the Taliban. He said Seoul is aware of the Taliban's current demands but declined to specify them.
Seoul also repeated its call that no rescue mission be launched that could endanger the captives further.
"We oppose military operations and there won't be military operations that we do not consent to," Chun said.
Earlier, chief presidential secretary for security affairs Baek Jong-chun said before departing as a high-level envoy to Afghanistan that the kidnappers "will be held accountable for taking the life of a Korean citizen." He also expressed "heartfelt condolences" to the bereaved family.
The South Korean victim was found Wednesday with 10 bullet holes in his head, chest and stomach in Ghazni province, the region where the group was seized July 19 while riding a bus, said Abdul Rahman, an Afghan police officer.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry identified the victim as 42-year-old Bae Hyung-kyu.
Bae, a deputy pastor and a founder of Saemmul Presbyterian Church, led the church's volunteer work in Afghanistan. He is survived by a wife and a young daughter.
He was known for being a passionate leader of the church's 300-member youth group, where he would lead each individual in private prayer, a church official told The Associated Press, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the ongoing standoff.
Bae previously suffered from lung disease and had recovered, but was still taking medicine.
He regularly traveled aboard on volunteer missions twice a year, and had planned to head to Africa after returning from the Afghanistan trip.
The South Korean presidential secretary Baek said Seoul would not tolerate the Taliban's inhumane act, saying that "the killing of an innocent civilian cannot be justified under any circumstance or for any reason."
"We once again strongly urge them to promptly return home the Korean citizens taken hostage," Baek said.
Meanwhile, some 50 anti-war activists held two separate protest rallies in downtown Seoul, demanding the U.S. and South Korea withdraw troops from Afghanistan, calling their military presence the "seed of the tragedy."
"The fundamental cause of the kidnapping is the U.S. war against Afghanistan in the name of an anti-terror campaign, and our government's support to the U.S. by sending troops to the wrong war," said activist Jung Young-sup.
The Taliban had initially urged South Korea to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Seoul reaffirmed that it already intended to pull its troops out of the country by year-end as previously planned.
South Korea has about 200 troops serving with the 8,000-strong U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, largely working on humanitarian projects such as medical assistance and reconstruction.
But the militants later changed their demand, asking to swap South Korean captives for an equal number of imprisoned Taliban fighters.