Face-to-face talks between the Taliban and South Korean officials over the fate of 21 hostages will not happen unless the officials travel to Taliban territory or the UN guarantees the militants' safety elsewhere, a purported spokesman said yesterday.
The spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the militants had talked to the Korean officials "many times" over the phone the last three days but that there had been "no results."
"We gave them two choices: either come to Taliban-controlled territory or meet us abroad," Ahmadi said from an unknown location. "They accepted these options and told us, `We are trying to persuade the UN to give you a guarantee to meet us in another country.'"
"The Koreans also said if the UN did not agree to give the Taliban a guarantee we will come to your areas to meet. They have not done any of the above promises yet," he said.
A UN spokesman said the international body was "fully supporting" efforts by the South Korean and Afghan governments to resolve the crisis.
"We are obviously aware of the unconfirmed reports suggesting that those holding the aid workers have requested our assistance to meet with the South Korean delegation at a neutral venue, but we have not been approached directly on this issue," said Dan McNorton of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Twenty-three South Koreans from a church group were kidnapped by the Taliban on July 19 while traveling from Kabul to Kandahar to work on medical and other aid projects. Two of the male hostages have been executed. Among the remaining 21 hostages, 16 are women.
The Taliban have demanded that 23 militant prisoners being held by Afghanistan and at the US base at Bagram be freed in exchange for the Koreans' lives, but the Afghan government has all but ruled that option out, saying it will not allow kidnapping to become a lucrative business.
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush is to welcome Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to his Camp David retreat Sunday for talks expected to focus on the Taliban insurgency and mounting civilian casualties.
The White House said they would discuss security and the US-led "war on terror" and "review their work together to enhance Afghanistan's long-term democracy, prosperity, and security."
They would also discuss ways of improving governance and fighting corruption including the drug trade, as well as measures to boost the Afghan economy and step up the battle against Taliban and other militants, the office of the US president said.
The Taliban insurgency began months after their 2001 ouster by US forces and has intensified recently, having already claimed thousands of lives, mainly of militants.
But a counter-offensive by US-led and NATO forces have led to increasing civilian deaths, and Karzai has angrily accused foreign soldiers of an "extreme use of force."
Experts say Karzai, who was on the way to the US early on Sunday, is especially interested in reducing the civilian casualties as the largely Western forces intensify bombing raids on hideouts of the Taliban, which has increasingly adopted Iraq-style insurgency tactics such as suicide bombings and kidnappings.