A purported spokesman for the Taliban said Sunday that the Afghan and South Korean governments have been given until 10:30 a.m. EDT Monday to respond their demand to exchange 23 capture militants for 23 South Korean hostages.
"The Korean government should put pressure on the Afghan government to give a positive response to the Taliban's demands," Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Associated Press by satellite phone.
"They should try to solve things through negotiations in order to save the lives of the hostages and so they can get home without being harmed."
It has been nearly four days since the group of Korean Christians, who were part of a church-based aid mission to Afghanistan, were forcefully seized in Ghazni province as they were traveling by bus from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar.
Previously, Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said the group of Koreans would be killed Saturday if South Korea did not withdraw its 200 troops in Afghanistan. Late Saturday, he changed those demands and also said the militants were holding 23 Koreans – up from the 18 he earlier claimed.
Neither the Afghan nor Korean governments have commented on the purported Taliban offer, but a delegation of eight Korean officials reportedly arrived in the capital of Kabul on Sunday and met with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the crisis.
"We are working very hard considering the deadline," a South Korean embassy official told Reuters, declining to give details.
Afghanistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen had similarly reported to AP that "[w]e are doing whatever we can to secure their release, and we hope that those who have kidnapped them will respect the Afghan and Islamic culture not to harm them and let them go back to their homes safe and sound."
On Sunday, some 300 peace activists, students and lawmakers held a candlelight vigil in downtown Seoul to renew their call on the government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. South Korea has about 200 troops serving in Afghanistan, mostly working on humanitarian projects. They are scheduled to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2007.
Meanwhile, tearful relatives prayed for their safe release at their church.
"My kids went to the war-ravaged country to do volunteer work, carrying love," said Seo Jung-bae, whose son and daughter were both taken hostage, according to Reuters. "I hope [they] will return to us and the country without a single hair damaged."
Despite some reports claiming that the group of Korean churchgoers – mostly in their 20s and 30s – was on an evangelistic mission to Afghanistan, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Saturday the Koreans were providing free medical or educational services with no missionary intentions.
As Jeremy Sewall, South Asia policy analyst for Washington-based International Christian Concern, noted in a released statement, “Under the Taliban, it is absolutely illegal to preach Christianity.”
Sewall called the team of South Koreans “courageous” and made an urgent appeal to all concerned parties to pray for them.
“Pray that God would do a miracle and permit them to be released without the use of force,” he urged.
Thursday’s bus siege was the largest-scale abduction of foreigners since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.