Afghanistan: August 2, 2007. Taliban militants said Thursday they were ready to meet a South Korean delegation over the fate of 21 hostages held in Afghanistan for more than two weeks, after two others were shot dead.
South Korea is desperate to end the ordeal of the mainly female aid workers abducted in southern Ghazni province, most of whom are said to be ill, with the rebels threatening to kill again if their demands are not met.
But the embassy in Kabul did not confirm that it would go ahead with such a meeting, which the Afghan government and the Taliban told AFP was already being planned.
"A South Korean diplomatic delegation is to meet the Taliban for face-to-face talks to look for ways and solutions to free the South Korean nationals," Ghazni governor Mirajuddin Pattan told AFP.
"This request from the Koreans has been accepted by the Taliban and now we are working on how, where and when this meet could take place," he said.
A Taliban spokesman told AFP the group had selected a team to meet the South Koreans at a secret location.
"Our delegation is in contact with South Koreans and the government and are working on how and where exactly the meet could take place," Yousuf Ahmadi said.
"So far no specific place has been chosen for the talks. I cannot tell you where the meeting might take place because of security concerns."
Ahmadi said Wednesday the Taliban had not killed any more of the hostages after the expiry of a deadline earlier in the day because direct talks with the South Koreans could open a "new phase of negotiations."
"We have not harmed or killed any of them so far but some of them are not doing well," he added Thursday.
Talks between negotiators and the rebels are apparently deadlocked over the government`s refusal to free Taliban fighters from its jails.
One of the lead negotiators, Waheedullah Mujadadi, said he quit Thursday partly because he believed his life was at risk. "On the other hand, the way the negotiations are going on, it will not have any results," he said.
He said earlier in the hostage crisis that the militants had opened fire on him.
Seoul was meanwhile seeking the help of the United States -- Afghanistan`s main ally -- and Pakistan -- where Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be sheltering.
The United States was the leading critic of a prisoner exchange in March that freed an Italian journalist but put a top Taliban commander back into the insurgency, which has intensified this year.
The propaganda-savvy Taliban pointed to Washington as the main obstacle to the negotiations, with Ahmadi saying: "The Americans do not permit the Kabul administration to free our prisoners."
He claimed the militia had been told this by Afghan negotiators.
Pakistan`s minister of state for foreign affairs Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar told AFP on the sidelines of an Asian security summit in Manila that Islamabad had no influence over the kidnappers.
"Naturally we have no lines of communication with the Taliban," he said.
With tensions mounting and residents reporting increased military activity in Ghazni, there were reports Wednesday that the government was planning a military operation to extract the aid workers -- said to have been divided into nine groups.
But officials denied such a plan was in the works and said leaflets dropped warning residents to evacuate or take cover referred to an operation that was not linked to the hostage crisis.
South Korea also reiterated its objections to a military operation and the United States, which has 27,000 troops here, said none was planned.
The Kabul government has resisted bending to the demands of the Taliban, which was removed from power in 2001 after subjecting Afghans to an extreme version of Islamic Sharia law, saying this would only encourage kidnappings.
A 62-year-old German engineer has been held in Wardak province near Kabul since July 18 by a group said to have close links to the Taliban.
Al-Jazeera television broadcast a video of him late Tuesday in which it said he pleaded for his life. The Taliban has said it also wants prisoners freed in exchange for the engineer