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2007/08/01 15:23 KST
(LEAD) S. Korean political leaders to visit U.S. call for support to end Afghan hostage crisis

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with political leaders planning to visit U.S.: CHANGES headline)
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, Aug. 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korean political leaders plan to travel to the United States this week to plead for help to facilitate the release of more than 20 Koreans taken captive in Afghanistan, demanding Washington be more flexible to resolve the hostage crisis, their aides said Wednesday.

   In their emergency meeting, the floor leaders of five major political parties agreed to leave for the U.S. as early as Thursday to meet U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the hostage issue, said Kim Chung-hwan, a spokesman for the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP).

   After the U.S. trip, the political leaders are pushing to visit Afghanistan or other concerned Asian countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Kim added. South Korea currently has a travel advisory for Afghanistan.

   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 they will otherwise kill the hostages.

   The government in Kabul, largely backed by the U.S., has rejected such a deal, and two of the hostages, both male, have been found shot to death. The killings stoked suspicions among some South Koreans who believe the U.S. hasn't actively helped South Korea strike a deal with the Taliban to release the hostages, as it might derail U.S. operations to mop up the militant forces.

   "We politely appeal to the U.S. government and the United Nations to shift their stance and help prevent these imminent killings," the floor leaders said in a joint statement. The parties include the GNP and its chief rival, the pro-government Uri Party.

   On Tuesday, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae issued a similar statement calling on the U.S. to be more flexible over the hostage issue.

   "It would be worthwhile to use flexibility in the cause of saving the precious lives of those still in captivity and is appealing the international community to do so," presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said in a statement.

   The U.S. government, however, has been standing firm on its position of not negotiating with terrorist groups.

   "The policy as written over the past 20 years or so is to not make concessions to terrorists," Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, told reporters this week. "It's been there for many, many years, and I don't see any indication that we are going to be changing that any time soon."
The South Korean political leaders appealed to the U.S. to make an exception, indicating it would not be a violation of political principles but a one-time humanitarian action.

   "The humanitarian support is desperately needed from the international community in order to save the lives of these innocent civilians," they said in the statement, making a veiled reference to the U.S. government.

   The statement also called on Kabul to make a shift in its policy on the hostage situation.

   "Reiterating a principle or maintaining a hard-line stance would very likely end up resulting in more deaths, and we're deeply concerned about that," it said, referring to the Afghan government. Kabul continues to refuse to release Taliban prisoners after coming under fire for freeing five in March in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist.

   A self-claimed Taliban spokesman has said the militia would start killing more of the captives unless the Afghan government agrees on the proposed prisoner-for-hostage deal by 4:30 p.m. Seoul time (0730 GMT).