GHAZNI, Afghanistan – Two top Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials met for face-to-face negotiations Friday on the fate of 21 hostages from the Asian country, the first in-person contact of the three-week-old crisis, an Afghan official said.
A Taliban spokesman said that two members of the Taliban's top council had been promised safe passage by the Afghan government to meet with the South Korean negotiators.
The meeting began Friday evening at the office of the Afghan Red Cross (Red Crescent) in Ghazni, near where the Koreans were kidnapped, said the Afghan official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
He said four members of the International Committee of the Red Cross were also taking part in the negotiations.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said two members of the Taliban's top council — Mullah Bashir and Mullah Nasorullah — had traveled to Ghazni for the talks. He said the government in Kabul had given the Taliban a written safety guarantee for the two officials' lives.
Afghan government officials did not immediately comment. An aide to the local governor said he wasn't available for comment, and an Interior Ministry spokesman in Kabul said he was not aware of a meeting taking place.
Ahmadi also said the Taliban would not kill any of the 21 remaining South Korean hostages until the face-to-face meetings have been held. Two men among the group of 23 South Koreans kidnapped on July 19 have already been killed.
The captors have repeatedly threatened to kill more of the Koreans if their demands to release Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and the U.S. military are not met.
The Afghan government has said it will not release prisoners, because doing so could encourage more kidnappings.
The local governor, Marajudin Pathan, has said a ransom payment might solve the crisis.
The South Korean government has issued guidelines to its aid organizations telling them to leave Afghanistan by the end of the month for safety reasons, a South Korean Embassy official said on condition of anonymity due to policy.
Last month, the government banned its citizens from traveling to Afghanistan.
Ahmadi said the departure of South Korean aid workers would move forward negotiations with the Taliban.
"The pulling out of Korean aid workers will have an effect on our negotiation process because pulling out of Koreans from Afghanistan is part of our demand. It will have a positive effect," he said without elaborating.
In South Korea, a spokesman for the hostages' families said on Friday the mothers of several hostages — five women and a translator — will travel to the emirate of Dubai next week to seek help from the Arab world in securing their loved ones' release.
"The reason why we are sending women, especially mothers, to Dubai is that Islamic culture has more sympathy for women," said the spokesman, Cha Sung-min.
The 23 South Koreans were abducted in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar.
Afghan authorities say talks with the Taliban, who have demanded the release of Taliban prisoners, are the best way to resolve the problem.
The captives — volunteers from a church group who planned to do health work in Afghanistan — include 16 women and five men.