Two of the South Korean aid workers held hostage in Afghanistan were to be released within hours, a Taliban commander said yesterday, as new talks began over the three-week crisis.
Commander Abdullah Jal said the two women were still in the hands of the militants, but would be released yesterday as a goodwill gesture from the Islamist hardliners.
"God willing, they will be freed this afternoon as a gesture of good intention from the Taliban leading council," said Jal, the commander for the Ghazni region where 23 South Koreans were abducted on July 19.
Two of the hostages have since been murdered by the Taliban, which has threatened to kill the remaining 21 unless the Afghan government meets their demands to release a similar number of key Taliban prisoners.
A Taliban delegation and a South Korean team meanwhile began a third day of talks at the offices of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Ghazni, 140km south of Kabul.
"The third round of talks started between the Taliban and South Koreans," Ghazni Province intelligence chief Mohammad Jaseem Khan said.
The talks, which began on Friday, were being held behind closed doors. Journalist were barred from even assembling outside the venue yesterday.
Intelligence agents had warned photographers against taking any pictures in the town, an AFP photographer said.
The talks coincided with fresh hopes that two of the 16 women in the group would be free later in the day.
The Taliban first announced the release on Saturday but hours later the regular spokesman for the group, Yousuf Ahmadi, said the handover appeared to have been delayed by "transport difficulties."
Earlier yesterday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Ahmadi as saying, "Our leaders have changed their minds and suspended their earlier decision to free two female hostages."
Ahmadi however did not rule out the possibility of a release later.
"The plan to release two female hostages first is still valid, but the timing has not been fixed yet," he said. "There might be confusion and misunderstanding ... I hope the situation will be resolved quickly."
South Korean officials refused to confirm the report, and Ahmadi could not be reached directly for comment.
Direct negotiations between the Taliban and a South Korean team are seen as one of the final options to save the group.
On Saturday the Taliban repeated a demand for the release of jailed militants in exchange for the remaining hostages, a condition the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has rejected, saying it could encourage kidnappings.
The hardliners are also involved in the separate abduction last month of two German engineers, one of whom has since been killed.
The Taliban has also demanded a prisoner swap for the surviving German, who is being held with four Afghans.