Police in central Afghanistan found the bullet-ridden body of a South Korean man after a purported Taliban spokesman claimed the militant group had killed one of its 23 captives.
The victim had 10 bullet holes in his head, chest and stomach, and was discovered in the Mushaki area of Qarabagh district in Ghazni province, said police officer Abdul Rahman, according to The Associated Press. Korean public broadcaster KBS identified the victim as 42-year-old pastor Bae Hyung-kyu, who led the team of Korean volunteers on a humanitarian aid mission to Afghanistan.
"Since Kabul's administration did not listen to our demand and did not free our prisoners, the Taliban shot dead a male Korean hostage,” Qari Yousef Ahmadi, the alleged news representative for the Taliban, told Reuters by phone from an unknown location.
Ahmadi said earlier that the insurgents would kill “a few” of the hostages before 5:30 a.m. EDT after talks over the fate of the 23 South Korean Christian hostages had stalled. Three deadlines have passed since the Koreans were abducted last Thursday.
Since the last deadline, which was set for Tuesday 10:30 a.m. EDT, some of the Korean hostages have been freed and taken to the U.S. base in Ghazni, according to two Western officials who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
Although the officials did not know how many were freed, the South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing unidentified Korean officials, reported that eight Koreans had been released. Some reports further claimed that the eight includes seven women and one man, although their identities were not immediately revealed.
The first victim, Bae, was reportedly a youth pastor and assistant pastor at Saemmul Community Church in Bundang, just south of the South Korean capital Seoul. Saemmul church is the home church of the Korean hostages in Afghanistan.
Bae, along with the other 22 South Korean hostages were kidnapped while riding in a bus through the Ghazni province – one of the most insurgency-hit regions in Afghanistan – as they made their way toward the southern city of Kandahar.
The group of South Koreans, which included 18 women, work at an aid organization in Kandahar, said Sidney Serena, a political affairs officer at the South Korean Embassy in Kabul.
Despite accusations that the Koreans were on an evangelistic mission, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun as well as the senior pastor of the hostages’ home church, the Rev. Park Eun-jo, emphasized that the volunteers were there to provide free medical or educational services with no missionary intentions.
It is illegal to share the Gospel in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
“There are some who misunderstand us but we didn’t attempt any aggressive missionary activities,” said Park on Monday, according to the Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh.
“We love Afghanistan and respect Muslim culture. We want to continue our community service work in medical facilities and schools in a way that is desirable to the people of Afghanistan,” said Park.
Despite pleas from the hostages’ family members and even Muslims in South Korea as well as Afghanistan, the Taliban is demanding for the Afghan government to release a similar number of Taliban prisoners and for South Korea to remove its 200 troops from the country in exchange for the captives.
Thus far, the Afghan government has not agreed to release the prisoners and South Korea has emphasized that the troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the year as scheduled. It was also noted that the Korean troops are mostly working on humanitarian projects.
Prior to Bae’s death, the purported Taliban spokesman said the militant group had “lost their patience with it all” and would begin killing “because a lot of time has passed since the deadline and there has been no response.”
“The Taliban takes no responsibility for the killing,” Ahmadi told AP by satellite phone before the news of a first killing was reported.
The threat came as a surprise to Ali Shah Ahmadzai, the police chief of the Ghazni province where the hostages were captured, who said negotiations were moving in a positive direction.
“I don’t know why they’ve suddenly changed their mind,” Ahmadzai said, according to AP. Several of Ahmadi’s past statements have turned out false or contradicted other statements by Taliban, leading some to question the reliability of his information.
“My message to the Taliban is to use tolerance and be patient,” the provincial police chief said. “This (killing hostages) is against the Afghan culture.”
The kidnapping of the 23 South Korean Christians was the largest abduction of a group of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Contributor Vu in Washington contributed to this article.