South Korean officials scrambled yesterday to free 21 aid workers held by the Taliban, who said they had been told their key demand for the release of jailed fighters would be met.
With two other aid workers already shot dead and the rest under threat of death, Afghan provincial officials and the hardline Islamic militia said there were plans for a face-to-face meeting between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation.
Although not confirmed by the South Korean government, Seoul -- with the backing of the hostages' relatives -- has repeatedly stated its stiff opposition to any attempt to free them by military action.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Yousuf Ahmadi, said on Thursday his group was ready to meet South Korean Ambassador Kang Sung-zu and had selected some of its representatives for talks.
A venue had still not been decided, he said yesterday, after police said any meeting would be afforded high security.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited "informed sources" saying that with most of the hostages ill, including two women reportedly in serious condition, the talks were likely to be held later yesterday.
The abduction highlights growing insecurity in Afghanistan, one of the key battlegrounds in the US-led "war on terror," nearly six years after the US led the invasion that toppled the Taliban government.
A Taliban spokesman said late on Thursday that it had been "assured" by South Korean officials that imprisoned fighters would be released in exchange for the Christian aid workers, who are members of a church in suburban Seoul.
This has been the key demand of the extremists, who kidnapped the group, composed mainly of women, on July 19 as they traveled in the country's insurgency-hit south.
"The Korean delegation has assured us they have spoken to the Americans and the Korean hostages will be freed in exchange with Taliban prisoners," Ahmadi said.
That could not be confirmed by the Afghan government, which has refused to release Taliban fighters for fear of encouraging kidnapping, and after severe criticism from the US over a similar deal in March.
Seoul has been pressing the US, a close ally, and Pakistan for help.
Eight senior South Korean legislators flew on Thursday to Washington to lobby for support, while South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon met US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in Manila.
Officials in Kabul have denied reports of a possible military operation to release the hostages, but a top US diplomat later spoke of the "potential" for action.
US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher told reporters that "potential military pressures" against the Taliban were among the "many tools" available.