New elders join talks on Korean hostages.


KABUL: July 28, 2007. Several Afghan elders and a former member of the Taliban joined the negotiations Saturday with the hardline militia over the fate of 22 South Korean hostages.

No immediate progress was reported by either side, but Afghan officials appeared hopeful that the inclusion of more elders would increase the pressure on the Taliban to release the hostages. "My message to the South Koreans, in particular to the families of these men and women being held by the Taliban, is this: We are optimistic. Don`t worry. We are doing our best ... Please be patient. A lot of people are involved today," said Ghazni lawmaker Habib Rahman, who attended the gathering. After the meeting Saturday, the elders and clerics returned to their respective villages to ask other community leaders to join them in talks with local Taliban. "When the elders and clerics go to talk with the Taliban, they will explain once again that taking hostages is not acceptable in Islam and Afghan culture," Rahman said. Those joining the talks included a former Taliban commander --- Abdul Salaam Rocketi, now a member of parliament --- and several leaders from around Qarabagh, where the hostages were kidnapped July 19 on Afghanistan`s main highway from Kabul to Kandahar. "Today we are hopeful to get a good result because more and more elders have gathered," said Qarabagh police chief Khwaja Mohammad. However, purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi complained that the delegation of Afghan leaders "doesn`t have the power to release prisoners." That has been the key Taliban demand from the outset of the hostage crisis. He said the Taliban wanted the hostages "to go home safe," but that they first wanted 23 Taliban militants released from Afghan prisons. Twenty-three Koreans were originally kidnapped; one was shot dead though the reasons why are not clear. A South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong-chun, had hoped to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, but that meeting did not take place, a South Korean Embassy official in Kabul said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy. Ahmadi said the Taliban hoped the South Korean envoy would persuade the Afghan government to make the prisoner swap. "If they don`t release the Taliban prisoners, then the Taliban does not have any option other than to kill the Korean hostages," he said, reiterating an earlier threat. The South Koreans, including 18 women, are being held in small groups in different locations and some are in poor health, Ahmadi said. He claimed the Korean church members came to Afghanistan not to do charity work but to meet with Christians who had converted from Islam.

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