KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday the kidnapping of 22 South Koreans by Taliban militants was shameful and that abducting women in particular was un-Islamic, while a purported Taliban spokesman set another deadline for the hostages' lives.
In his first comments on the crisis since the South Koreans were taken hostage on July 19, Karzai criticized the kidnapping of "foreign guests" and especially women, and he assured a South Korean presidential envoy that the government will "spare no effort" to secure the hostages' release.
"This will have a shameful effect on the dignity of the Afghan people," Karzai said, according to a statement from the presidential palace released after talks with the South Korean delegation.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the militant group had given a list of 23 insurgent prisoners it wants released in exchange for the hostages and was waiting for the government to act. He said the militants might kill one or more hostages if the prisoners weren't released by noon (0730 GMT) Monday.
"We might kill one, we might kill two, we might kill four, or we might kill all of the hostages," Ahmadi said. "It might be women, it might be men."
Several previous Taliban deadlines have passed without consequence, though the militants killed one male hostage last week.
Afghan officials, meanwhile, reported no progress in talks with tribal elders to secure the release of the hostages.
Afghanistan's national council of clerics said Sunday that the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, taught that no one has the right to kill women, children or elders.
"Even in the history of Afghanistan, in all its combat and fighting, Afghans respected women, children and elders," the council said. "Killing of women is against Islam, against the Afghan culture, and they shouldn't do it."
In his meeting with Karzai, South Korean presidential envoy Baek Jong-chun thanked the president for the Afghan government's help with the hostage situation and said Seoul will respect the Afghan government's way of ending the crisis, according to Karzai's office.
Karzai "explained that hostage-taking and abuse of foreign guests, especially women, is against Islam and the Afghan culture and the perpetration of this heinous act on our soil is in total contempt of our Islamic and Afghan values," his office said.
Two days of meetings between elders of Qarabagh district in Ghazni province, where the South Korean hostages were kidnapped, and a delegation of senior officials from Kabul, yielded no results so far, said Shirin Mangal, spokesman for the Ghazni provincial governor.
"So far there is no progress from the meetings," Mangal said.
The meeting is being held behind closed doors, and Mangal did not divulge any details.
Two Afghan lawmakers, including a former Taliban commander, Abdul Salaam Rocketi, joined the negotiations Saturday.
Ahmadi complained Saturday that the Afghan delegation "doesn't have the power to release prisoners" — the key Taliban demand from the outset of the hostage crisis.
He said the Taliban wanted the hostages "to go home safe," but they first wanted 23 Taliban militants released from Afghan prisons.
A leader of the South Korean group, which was kidnapped while traveling by bus on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan's main thoroughfare, was shot and killed last week. The 22 other hostages, including 18 women, remain captive.
Afghan officials have said they are optimistic the hostages will be freed without further bloodshed, although the kidnappers have threatened to kill their captives if their demands are not met.
Ahmadi said the militants hoped the South Korean envoy can "persuade the Afghan government" to swap imprisoned militants for the captives.
"If they don't release the Taliban prisoners, then the Taliban does not have any option other than to kill the Korean hostages," he said, reiterating an earlier threat.
Local tribal elders and clerics from Qarabagh have been conducting negotiations by telephone with the captors for several days.
Ahmadi said the hostages were being held in small groups in different locations and that some of them were in poor health.