Mon, Jul 23, 2007 - Page 1 News List

S Korea prepares for troop pullout from Afghanistan

MYSTERY While Seoul mulled the fate of its own, German intelligence was doubtful over the veracity of an announcement that two Germans were slain

AGENCIES , SEOUL AND KABUL

South Korea has begun preparations to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year as scheduled, officials said yesterday, amid a purported offer from the Taliban to swap 23 South Korean hostages for imprisoned Taliban fighters.

The militant group had said it would kill the South Koreans on Saturday if Seoul didn't withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. But it later changed that demand, saying the Afghan and South Korean governments had until 7pm yesterday to agree to the release of 23 Taliban militants or the hostages would be killed.

South Korea has about 200 troops serving with the 8,000-strong US-led coalition in Afghanistan and largely work on humanitarian projects such as medical assistance and reconstruction work.

The South Korean government informed parliament late last year that it would terminate its military mission in Afghanistan before the end of this year. Overseas troop deployments and their withdrawal need parliamentary approval.

South Korea "has already kicked off preparations as it takes about five to six months," to bring home troops, a top Defense Ministry official told several lawmakers, said Kim Sung-gon, chief of the parliamentary defense committee.

The Defense Ministry confirmed the comments but stressed that the process had begun well before the Taliban demanded the withdrawal of South Korean troops from the war-ravaged country.

South Korean troops run a hospital for Afghan civilians at the US base at Bagram, and the facility has treated more than 240,000 patients.

However, relatives of the kidnap victims urged the government to immediately move forward its plan, noting Seoul had already decided to bring its soldiers home by end of this year.

Meanwhile, discussing claims by Taliban rebels that they had killed two German hostages on Saturday, the German foreign minister said one of the hostages was still alive and that the other had died from "stress and strain."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin there had been a lot conflicting information about the fate of the hostages, both civil engineers working on a dam project, but that analysis suggested one hostage was alive.

"We have to assume that one of the two hostages died while being held hostage and all indications are that he was not murdered, but that he died of stress and strain ... we will do everything possible to save the life of the second hostage," Steinmeier said

The Bild am Sonntag newspaper quoted unnamed government sources as saying German authorities had seen the body of the engineer and it had gunshot wounds.

The same newspaper quoted German government sources as saying that Taliban Yousuf, who had made the announcement about the executions, did not speak for the hostage takers. German intelligence sources told Bild that the spokesman had nothing to do with the kidnappers.

"He may be someone trying to take advantage of the situation," Bild said.

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