Taliban militants threatened yesterday to kill some of their 22 South Korean hostages if there was no progress by noon today on their demand for the release of eight jailed rebels.
Government-appointed negotiators insisted however that the Islamic extremists free the 16 women in the group of Christian aid workers captured on July 19 before they would consider the militants' demands.
Baek Jong-chun, a special envoy dispatched by Seoul, held talks yesterday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who assured Baek that his government would ``spare no effort'' to secure the hostages' release.
In his first comments on the crisis since the South Koreans were taken hostage on July 19, Karzai said yesterday that the kidnapping of "foreign guests" was shameful and that abducting women in particular was un-Islamic.
"This will have a shameful effect on the dignity of the Afghan people," Karzai said, according to a statement from the presidential palace released after his talks with the South Korean envoy.
The Taliban leadership had decided that if the Afghan and South Korean governments "don't pay attention to this issue by tomorrow 12 o'clock, the Taliban will kill some Korean hostages," militant spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said.
Four earlier deadlines set by the militants have elapsed without incident but the Taliban on Saturday expressed impatience, with 17 of the South Koreans said to be ill.
The Taliban shot dead the leader of group. a 42-year-old pastor, on Wednesday.
Ahmadi said yesterday that the Taliban was "trying to the maximum possible level to solve this issue via talks and that is why we have still kept alive the hostages for this long period."
The South Koreans had been divided into small groups and were being held in three different provinces, he said.
"Some of the hostages have some health problems due to weather or psychological pressure they feel," he said.
Afghan authorities said yesterday that they wanted the women to be released before considering any demands.
In "Islamic law and Afghan culture we cannot harm women and should not take women as hostages and prisoners," said Mahmood Gailani, a leading member of the negotiating team.
"After they free the women, we are ready to negotiate with them about the male hostages," said Mirajuddin Pattan, governor of Ghazni Province where the group was captured.
Gailani said the release of Taliban prisoners was not an option but others could be considered.
Asked if this may include paying a ransom, he said: "We are still exploring our options. We should hear ... what their demands are."
The government was widely criticized when it released five Taliban prisoners in March to free an Italian hostage and Karzai vowed afterwards such a deal would not be repeated.
Karzai's office said Baek had told the president his government would accept "any position" taken by Kabul in dealing with the crisis.