GHAZNI, Afghanistan – A Taliban spokesman said Saturday the militants will release two sick, female South Korean hostages "soon" for the sake of good relations with South Korea, but international Red Cross and Afghan officials could not confirm the claim.
Spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said Saturday the Taliban's high command had made the decision to free the two women because they were sick, but added that the commanders had not decided on the timing of their release.
Two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials met Saturday for the second day of face-to-face talks over the fate of 21 South Korean hostages being held since July 19 by the militants.
The talks are being held at the Afghan Red Cross office in Ghazni with the International Committee of the Red Cross helping to facilitate the talks as a neutral intermediary.
The two Taliban leaders said earlier Saturday that the Koreans would "definitely" be released, possibly as soon as "today or tomorrow."
"The Taliban's big commanders have decided for the sake of good relations between the Taliban and the Korean people that without any conditions they are soon going to release two sick women," Ahmadi said.
Franz Rauchenstein, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said neither the Taliban nor South Korean officials had talked to the Afghan Red Cross about facilitating the release of hostages, and that he could not confirm that two women were to be released.
Marajudin Pathan, the local governor, said he had not heard that two women would be released and that it hadn't been discussed during negotiations Saturday. He said talks would continue on Sunday.
"Qari Ahmadi (the Taliban spokesman) is somewhere in Pakistan," Pathan said. "He's just running his mouth. They (the Taliban) are always giving contradictory statements."
Pathan said he did not think the hostage crisis would be resolved by acceding to Taliban demands to release their imprisoned militants, "but we'll see if it's by some other avenue." He refused to specify if that meant a ransom payment, though he has said previously he thought money would resolve the situation.
Mullah Qari Bashir, one of the Taliban negotiators, said the face-to-face talks were going well and that the Taliban were sticking with their original demand — that 21 Taliban prisoners be released from Afghan prisons.
"God willing the government (of Afghanistan) and the government of Korea will accept this," Bashir said outside the Afghan Red Cross office in Ghazni. "Definitely these people will be released. God willing our friends (Taliban militants in prison) will be released."
Asked when the Koreans might be freed, he said: "Hopefully today or tomorrow."
"I'm very optimistic. The negotiations are continuing on a positive track," Bashir said.
The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Koreans, all volunteers from a church group, last month but later executed two male captives by gunfire.
South Korea took a cautious approach to the negotiations.
"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 The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Another Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujaheed, said the government in Kabul gave the Taliban leaders — Bashir and Mullah Nasrullah — a written guarantee also signed by American and other foreign officials — that the two Taliban would be safe.