KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - A purported Taliban spokesman said Sunday that the hard-line militia had extended by 24 hours the deadline for the Afghan government to trade captured militants for 23 South Korean hostages.
Afghan elders leading the hostage negotiations met with the kidnappers and reported that the Koreans were healthy, said Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi, the police chief of Qarabagh district in Ghazni district, where the Koreans were kidnapped Thursday.
He said the delegation made progress in their talks, but the Afghan military said Afghan and U.S. troops had “surrounded” the region in case the government decides the military should move in.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said the militants were giving the Afghan and South Korean governments until 10:30 a.m. EDT Monday to respond to their demand that 23 Taliban prisoners be freed in exchange for the Koreans.
“The Korean government should put pressure on the Afghan government to give a positive response to the Taliban’s demands,” Ahmadi said by satellite phone.
“They should try to solve things through negotiations in order to save the lives of the hostages and so they can get home without being harmed.”
Neither the Afghan nor Korean governments have commented on the purported Taliban offer. A delegation of eight Korean officials arrived in the capital of Kabul on Sunday and met with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the crisis.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the troops positioned around the area where the Koreans were believed to be held could start a military operation to rescue them “as soon as we receive the order.”
But a U.S. spokesman said that appeared unlikely for the moment. “We will only launch rescue operations or military action at the request of the Afghan and Korean governments,” said Lt. Col. David Accetta. “We do not want to jeopardize the lives of the Korean civilians.”
Villagers, meanwhile, found the body of a German construction worker who had been kidnapped in neighboring Wardak province along with another German and five Afghans in a separate incident on Wednesday, provincial police chief Mohammad Hewas Mazlum said.
Ahmadi said Saturday that militants shot and killed the Germans because Berlin hadn’t pledged to pull its 3,000 troops out of Afghanistan.
Afghan and German officials said intelligence indicated that one died of a heart attack and the other was still alive. But German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger told the AP in Berlin that the body had bullet wounds. He said the body had been brought to Kabul on Sunday night and would be transported to Germany for an autopsy.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel vigorously defended Germany’s troop deployment in Afghanistan, saying her government would not negotiate with the Taliban or pull out its soldiers.
“We will not react to the Taliban’s demands. We will do everything responsibly, and we will not be blackmailed,” Merkel said on ARD public television.
Merkel said she did not have new information about the hostage situation, but that a government crisis team in Berlin “has worked intensively all day, and we’re doing everything possible to save the life of the German citizen.”
The militants kidnapped the Koreans while they were riding on a bus from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar, where they live and work, some at medical facilities. It was the largest single abduction of foreigners since the 2001 fall of the hard-line Taliban regime.
The 23 South Koreans, including 18 women, work at an aid organization in Kandahar, said Sidney Serena, a political affairs officer at the South Korean Embassy in Kabul.
Relatives back in South Korea pressed their government to win the captives’ safe release.
“Sister, I promise that I’ll be good and take care of you. So please come back safely,” Lee Jung-hoon, younger brother of hostage Lee Jung-ran, told reporters as he held back tears.
“I would not really have any other wish … if the Taliban send our family members home safely,” said Seo Jung-bae, father of two of the hostages, who gathered with relatives at a church in Bundang just south of Seoul to watch television updates on the situation.
Some 300 peace activists, students and lawmakers held a candlelight vigil in downtown Seoul to renew their call on the government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The troop withdrawal had been the initial demand of the kidnappers’ purported spokesman.
South Korea has about 200 troops serving with the 8,000-strong U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, largely working on humanitarian projects.
The South Korean government informed the National Assembly late last year that it would terminate its military mission in Afghanistan before the end of this year.
Earlier Sunday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said it has begun preparations to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year as previously scheduled, stressing the process had begun well before the purported Taliban demand for their withdrawal.
In other developments, the U.S.-led coalition said a prolonged battle in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province left over two dozen Taliban dead. NATO also said a foreign service member was killed in Kunar province when a combat patrol was ambushed by gunfire.
Associated Press reporters Amir Shah in Kabul, Noor Khan in Kandahar, Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.