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2007/08/07 11:01 KST
Taliban makes fresh demand to swap Korean hostages for female prisoners

SEOUL, Aug. 7 (Yonhap) -- Taliban militants Tuesday proposed that two female South Korean hostages be released in return for the release of as many female Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government.

   The fresh demand by Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, made in a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency, comes amid reports that two South Korean hostages are seriously ill.

   It also comes just one day after the U.S. and Afghan presidents refused to make concessions to the kidnappers in a summit meeting in Washington Monday, fueling concerns about "horrible" consequences for the 21 hostages taken on July 19 on their way to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar from Kabul. Two others have already been killed by the insurgents.

   "We do not know the exact number of Taliban women imprisoned by the Afghan government, but if (Kabul) lets them go, we will release the same number of female hostages," Ahmadi said.

   He said the jailed women are simple Taliban supporters, who were convicted for providing food or shelter to Taliban fighters.

   "The Taliban do not have any female ministers or female fighters," he added.

   Analysts said the Taliban, the former governing power of Afghanistan, might have felt the international and domestic pressure to release the South Korean hostages, 16 of whom are women.

   Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week said it was shameful and "un-islamic" to kidnap females while some 300 Afghans in the southern city of Kandahar on Monday called for the immediate release of the South Koreans in a street rally.

   It is not known whether the new demand is acceptable to the Afghan government. Kabul has refused to free any Taliban prisoners since being roundly criticized for releasing five Taliban fighters to secure the release of an Italian journalist taken hostage in March.

   Karzai and U.S. President George W. Bush also agreed Monday that they will not give in to the Taliban's demands to secure the release of the South Korean hostages.

   "Both leaders agreed that in negotiations for the release, there should be no quid pro quo for the hostages," Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman, told reporters at Camp David where the U.S. president and his Afghan counterpart wrapped up a two-day summit.

   Islam prohibits murdering women, but the purported Taliban spokesman has said the Taliban militants could kill any of the hostages, regardless of their gender, should their demands not be met.

   At least two of the South Korean hostages are said to be seriously ill while efforts by South Korean officials in the Central Asian nation to deliver medical supplies and food to the captives have been rejected by the Taliban, according to officials in Seoul.

   An Afghan hospital on Monday said it delivered some US$1,200 worth of medicines, including pain killers, vitamin tablets and heart pills, for the South Korean captives the day before, dropping them off at a location specified by the Taliban.

   Ahmadi accused Ghazni province officials of stealing the medicine left for the South Korean hostages, but said the Taliban's own doctors have treated the sick hostages.

   Moahammad Hashim Wahwaj, the Afghan doctor who dropped off the medicines, earlier told the Associated Press that the Taliban had confirmed picking up the medicine.