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2007/08/09 17:56 KST
Seoul waiting to meet Taliban militants on its terms for release of hostages

SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korean officials may soon meet face-to-face with Taliban rebels to negotiate the terms of release for 21 South Koreans held hostage in Afghanistan, officials said Thursday.

   Abdullah Jan, a purported Taliban commander, was quoted as saying in an interview with a Pakistani daily that the first face-to-face meeting with South Korean officials could take place as early as Thursday.

   Sources say the venue of the meeting is likely to be a Taliban-controlled area, as the insurgent group earlier insisted.

   A South Korean official refused to confirm an imminent meeting with Taliban militants, but noted the sides may meet when conditions are right.

   "The goal is not to hold a meeting, but to make progress when the sides meet," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

   The major hurdle, besides finding what officials called a "mutually acceptable venue" for the envisioned meeting, is to narrow the gap between what the kidnappers want and what South Korea can give.

   The Taliban wants to swap the South Korean hostages for the same number of imprisoned Taliban fighters, a demand both Kabul and Washington have flatly rejected as they are in the sixth year of fighting the insurgent group, which is believed to be linked to the international terrorist group Al-Qaeda.

   Afghanistan freed five Taliban prisoners earlier in the year to win the release of an Italian journalist, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai later called it a one-time deal after being roundly criticized for making the deal.

   Seoul had repeatedly called on the Afghan and U.S. governments to be flexible on the prisoner-for-hostage deal, but said the demand is simply out of its ability to grant after the Afghan president and his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush, vowed not to make any concessions to the Taliban in a summit earlier this week.

   The South Korean government is said to have instead offered to build schools, hospitals or other public facilities, not necessarily for the Taliban, but for the general Afghan population.

   The Taliban has yet to respond to Seoul's latest offer, but observers believe the militant group's demands may have softened amid increasing international and domestic criticism for holding females hostage, an act explicitly forbidden in its own religion.

   On Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told Yonhap News Agency in a telephone interview that the Taliban militants were willing to swap female hostages for the same number of Afghan women in jail for aiding Taliban fighters.
He later reversed his own comments, telling an Afghan news agency that the Taliban's earlier demand still stands.

   However, an unidentified Taliban commander who claimed to be holding four of the South Korean hostages told Reuters on Tuesday that they have invited the hostages to convert to Islam, a possible sign that the militants are under pressure for holding female hostages.

   The South Koreans were seized on July 19 while traveling on a highway to the southern city of Kandahar from Kabul. The 42-year-old male leader of the Christian aid group, Bae Hyung-kyu, and one other male have been shot and killed, while 21 others remain in captivity.