Afghanistan: No Progress in Talks to Free 22 South Korea Hostages

Afghan officials reported no progress in talks with tribal elders to secure the release of 22 South Korean hostages held by the Taliban, as a South Korean envoy met with the Afghan president to discuss the matter Sunday.

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 now waiting for the government to act.

"The government had told us they need time to negotiate and soon they will release the prisoners," Ahmadi said. He said the Taliban has stated their demands and no longer needs to negotiate but still has open channels with the government.

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Two days of meetings between elders of Qarabagh district in Ghazni province, where the South Korean hostages were kidnapped on July 19, 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.

A South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong-chun, met Afghan's President Hamid Karzai on Sunday to discuss the hostage situation. No details of the talks were immediately available.

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.

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