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2007/08/01 21:10 KST
(LEAD) Operation begins to rescue S. Korean captives: report

SEOUL, Aug. 1 (Yonhap) -- The Afghan authorities launched an operation on Wednesday to rescue the remaining 21 South Korean hostages held by the Taliban, a media report said.

   The reported action came hours after a fresh Taliban-set deadline for negotiations to release the hostages expired.

   "The operation has started," Khowja Seddiqi, the district chief of Ghazni's Qarabagh district, where the Taliban kidnapped 23 Korean Christian volunteers nearly two weeks ago, was quoted as saying by Reuters news service.

   But South Korean government officials refuted the report, saying the Afghan government would not take any military action without Seoul's consent.

   "We have not sanctioned such a rescue operation. We have not been informed of such an action either," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Youn-soo said.

   There have been mixed calls here for a settlement of the protracted hostage crisis, with some calling for a rescue operation. Others stress the need for continued dialogue instead of a military operation as the kidnappers have threatened to kill all the captives if a rescue operation is attempted.

   Twenty-three Koreans from a church group, including 16 women, were sized by Taliban insurgents on July 19, while traveling in a bus from the capital Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar. The militants have demanded the release of an equal number of Taliban combatants from Afghan prisons, threatening to kill the hostages if their demand is not met.

   Two of the hostages, both male, have been found shot to death.