South Korean officials resumed face-to-face talks with the Taliban on Thursday over the fate of 19 church volunteers who are still being held hostage in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province.
The officials arrived Thursday morning at the office of the Afghan Red Crescent Society for the 10 o’clock (3:30 a.m. EDT) meeting and were joined by a Taliban delegation later in the day.
"The parties are discussing; the meeting has started," the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation, Franz Rauchenstein, told Agence France-Presse.
Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi confirmed the talks in the small town of Ghazni, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) south of Kabul, had started mid-afternoon.
The second round of negotiations comes three days after the Taliban released two hostages as a “goodwill gesture” towards the Korean people and officials.
With the U.S. and Afghan governments taking a hard-line stance against the Taliban’s demand for a prisoner swap, current South Korea-Taliban talks appear to be one of the last hopes.
It has been nearly a month since the Taliban militants kidnapped the group of 23 Christian volunteers – the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Since then, two male hostages have been killed – the leader of the group, Bae Hyung-kyu, who was found dead on July 25, and 29-year-old Shim Sung-min, whose body was found July 30.
The release of 37-year-old Kim Kyung-ja and 32-year-old Kim Ji-na on Monday was the first breakthrough in a drama that has made headlines around the world and came after the first round face-to-face talks between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation.
The two released hostages, who were originally said to be ill to the point where their lives were in danger, were reported to be in “good condition” Tuesday and were going to return to South Korea “very soon.”
Although outwardly the rebels still appear to be demanding a prisoner-hostage exchange, inside reports say a ransom deal is quietly taking place.
Taliban negotiators have reportedly asked for $500,000 for the release of each hostage or a total of nearly $10 million. South Korea, meanwhile, has said they are willing to pay $500,000 for all 19 remaining hostages, according to The Korea Times.
If the report is true, both sides likely resorted to ransom negotiations after Washington and Kabul both made it clear that there will be no exchange of Taliban prisoners for Korean hostages – the Taliban’s main demand since the beginning. Rebel prisoners are held by Afghan and U.S. military, and South Korea has repeatedly told the Taliban that they have no control over the release of the rebels.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was criticized by the United States and other Western countries earlier this year for giving into terrorism after he released five Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian reporter in March. Although the Afghan president has vowed that the trade was a one-time deal, critics say the prisoner exchange incident was enough to encourage recent abductions in the country.
Contributor Michelle Vu in Washington contributed to this article.