GHAZNI, Afghanistan – The Taliban started a new round of face-to-face talks with South Korean officials on Thursday on the fate of 19 church volunteers held captive in Afghanistan for almost one month, officials said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the militants will demand the release of eight Taliban prisoners held by Afghan authorities before any of the remaining South Korean hostages can be freed — a demand so far rejected by Afghan authorities.
Three South Korean delegates arrived Thursday morning at the office of the Afghan Red Crescent, where previous negotiations with the Taliban have been held. International Red Cross officials were also at hand to facilitate the talks, said Franz Rauchenstein, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Taliban delegation arrived late in the afternoon, several hours after the talks were scheduled to start, Rauchenstein said. There was no immediate explanation what caused the delay.
The fresh talks come after the release on Monday of two women who were among 23 South Koreans kidnapped by the militants on July 19 as they were traveling by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The kidnappers have executed two male hostages. Fourteen women and five men are still being held.
Two militant representatives held two rounds of face-to-face talks with South Korean officials last Friday and Saturday at the Red Crescent office, after the Afghan government agreed to guarantee the safety of the militant delegation.
The Taliban want South Korean officials to pressure the Afghan government to free the imprisoned militants and will not harm the rest of the hostages while the talks are ongoing, Ahmadi said.
The Afghan government was heavily criticized in March for freeing five Taliban prisoners to win the release of an Italian journalist, and have ruled out any further such deals, saying they would encourage more kidnappings.
Ahmadi said the release of the two women was a show of goodwill. South Korean officials have called for the unconditional release of the rest of the hostages, while also calling on Afghan authorities to show flexibility.