The Taliban in Afghanistan “might stop killing hostages” temporarily, reported a high-ranking commander for the militant group as the deadline loomed for the lives of 21 South Korean captives.
The Afghan government is "under extreme pressure, and they are embarrassed, so we want to keep them in this situation and sustain this crisis for a while," the Taliban commander told CBS News in a phone interview.
While the militant – who spoke to CBS News on condition that he not be named – did not say exactly how the group planned to draw-out the situation, he did say the killing "might stop," if only temporarily, because the Taliban’s strategy “may be changing.”
The commander’s comments followed the latest threat by the Taliban on the lives of the remaining 21 Korean Christian who were abducted on July 19. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf said if the Kabul administration and the South Korean government did not give a “positive reply” to their demand by Wednesday 12 noon (3:30 a.m. EDT), the militants would start killing more hostages.
He said Afghan negotiators had not contacted the Taliban since a second hostage was killed Monday evening and said the insurgents suspected the Afghan government and foreign troops were intending to launch a rescue bid.
Any attempt to rescue the hostages by force would put the Korean's lives at risk, he warned.
It has been nearly two weeks since Taliban militants abducted 23 South Korean Christians, including 18 women, in insurgency-prone Ghazni province. The church group was on their way to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens when their bus was hijacked last Thursday.
Since the abduction – the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 – two hostages have been killed. The leader of the aid group, Bae Hyung-kyu, was found dead last Wednesday in the southern province of Ghazni, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) south of Kabul. And most recently, the bullet-riddled body of 29-year-old Shim Sung-min was found Tuesday.
As the latest deadline loomed, the insurgents warned that two women among the 21 South Korean captives were gravely ill and in danger of dying, according to Agence France-Presse.
"Their condition is very bad,” purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said late Tuesday. “We don't have enough medicines – maybe they will die.”
On Saturday, Reuters released a tape of the voice of a Korean hostage presumed to be that of 39-year-old Yoo Jung-hwa, who said the Taliban was moving the hostages around after dividing the captives into smaller groups.
"We are tired and being moved from one location to another,” she told a Reuters reporter on the mobile phone of a Taliban militant.
“We are kept in separate groups and are not aware of each other. We ask the Taliban and the government to release us,” she said. “Sometimes they threaten us; they say they're going to kill us one by one. … Every day we move somewhere but we don't know where. Now we're only four, we don't know if others have survived or not. Please save us. Please tell the Korean government and the U.S. government about us."
The Taliban is demanding the release of rebel prisoners in exchange for the Korean Christian hostages and the withdrawal of the 200 South Korean troops in Afghanistan.
However, Afghan government is thus far resisting to submit to the request after Afghan President Hamid Karzai came under heavy criticism for releasing Taliban militants in exchange for an Italian reporter in March.
"We shouldn't encourage kidnapping by actually accepting their demands ... In this situation we are doing what is the best for the interests of the hostages, and government," Karzai spokesman Humayun Hamidzada told reporters, according to Reuters.
"If we keep on responding positively to the demands of terrorists, we will face more problems," he added.
South Korea, however, has urged U.S. and Afghan governments to show "flexibility" over Taliban demands to exchange its remaining 21 Christian aid workers for imprisoned militants.
"The government is well aware of how the international community deals with these kinds of abduction cases,” Cheon Ho Seon, a spokesman for President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, said in a statement Tuesday. “But it also believes that it would be worthwhile to use flexibility in the cause of saving the precious lives of those still in captivity and is appealing to the international community to do so.”
On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials tried to shame the Taliban into releasing the female captives by appealing to a tradition of cultural hospitality and chivalry.
Karzai criticized the Taliban's kidnapping of "foreign guests," especially women, as contrary to the tenets of Islam.
"This will have a shameful effect on the dignity of the Afghan people," Karzai said in a statement from the presidential palace.
The move may have worked as the senior Taliban commander who spoke anonymously to CBS News said the militants were considering the release of the female hostages.
He stressed that if the 18 women were freed, "there will be no money." In recent interviews with CBS News, Taliban leaders have repeatedly denied reports that any ransom was being sought.
However, the Taliban’s purported spokesman told the Associated Press that the next victim “might be a man or a woman.”
“It might be one. It might be two, four. It might be all of them,” Ahmadi reportedly said.
Although talks on the fate of the South Koreans continued Tuesday, a member of the government’s negotiating team told AFP there has been little movement.