South Korean political leaders will visit the US this week to plead for its help in freeing 21 South Korean hostages threatened with death by Afghanistan's Taliban, officials said yesterday.
"We politely demand the US government and the United Nations take an active role in stopping the killing of hostages," the five main political parties said in a joint statement.
They were speaking hours before the expiry of a new deadline set by the kidnappers, who have already killed two South Korean captives.
More than 20 relatives of the hostages, who were seized on July 19 while on an aid mission from a Seoul church, gathered separately outside the US embassy.
"US president and American people: Please save our children," read one banner. "Taliban: You have children -- send our children to us," read another.
They shed tears as leader Choi Kyong-ja read a statement appealing for help from the international community and the US, which refuses to negotiate with groups it considers terrorist organizations.
"Our government has no effective means to cope with the Taliban's demands," the party statement said, referring to the insurgents' insistence on swapping the South Koreans for their own jailed prisoners.
Some party parliamentary leaders planed to leave for the US as early as today and will try to meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said Kim Chung-hwan, a spokesman for the main opposition Grand National Party.
A second group would try to visit Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan itself, Kim said.
The government has not publicly asked Washington, its oldest ally, for help -- appealing only for "flexibility" from the international community in negotiations with the Taliban.
Civic groups, political parties and hostage relatives were calling openly for the involvement of the US, the largest single troop contributor to Afghanistan in its battle against the Taliban.
Some 80 activists and students denounced both the Taliban and the US during a rally near the US embassy earlier yesterday.
"US is responsible for the killing of hostages," some shouted.
Chun Joon-ho, an activist group leader, told reporters: "If the United States still thinks it is an ally of our country, it must assume responsibility for the release of hostages and hold dialogue with the Taliban."
The presidential office said it still opposes any military rescue bid.
The ministry said yesterday it had formally added Afghanistan to a list of "no-go" states, along with Iraq and Somalia.
Under a new law, unauthorized visits are punishable with up to one year's jail or a fine of up to 3 million won (US$3,200).