South Korea pressed yesterday for its own direct talks with the Taliban militants holding 21 aid workers in Afghanistan, even as the US and Afghan presidents insisted there must be no kind of deal.
At talks outside Washington, US President George W. Bush and his visiting Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai agreed they would not make any concessions to secure the captives' release, the White House said.
However, South Korean officials in Seoul and Kabul said they are hopeful of face-to-face talks with the hardline Taliban, which is demanding the release from jail of captured fighters in return for the hostages' lives.
Separately, Yonhap news agency in Seoul said the Taliban was now proposing that a number of female hostages be exchanged for jailed women supporters of the insurgents.
The reported proposal by spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, in a telephone interview with Yonhap, followed Taliban claims that two South Korean women were gravely ill.
"We do not know the exact number of Taliban women imprisoned by the Afghan government, but if [Kabul] lets them go, we will release the same number of female hostages," Ahmadi was quoted as saying.
The original 23 aid workers from a Christian church in Seoul were abducted on July 19 as they traveled in insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan.
Since then, the Taliban has killed two male captives to try to force the Afghan government into a prisoner release, leaving 16 women and seven men.
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said the health problems were not serious.
"The hostages can't be perfectly healthy after nearly 20 days in captivity. In that sense, they are not healthy on the whole. There has been no symptom of any of the hostages being critically ill," he said. "The government is making various efforts for the release of the hostages."
Song said the outcome of the Bush-Karzai summit at the Camp David retreat had been anticipated.
Neither president directly addressed the hostage situation at a subsequent news conference, but US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said later they had discussed it and agreed there could be no deal.
"The United States has been working to the extent possible with the Afghan and [South] Korean governments in urging that the hostages be released," Johndroe said.
"There will be no quid pro quo, the Taliban cannot be emboldened by this," he said.
The Taliban said on Monday it was awaiting the outcome of Bush's meeting with Karzai to see whether its demand would be met.
Ahmadi said then that South Korean negotiators had "assured" the militants that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun had asked Bush for help to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for the hostages.
Also on Monday, the South Korean embassy in Kabul said it had "high hopes" for face-to-face talks.
Negotiators were able to speak with one of the hostages on Saturday, it said, in the first known contact between the captives and their government.
An official said the conversation was brief and would not be disclosed due to safety concerns.