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Koreans could be freed soon, says Taliban

A Taliban leader taking part in hostage negotiations says the hostages will definitely be released and possibly as soon as "today or tomorrow."

world Updated: Aug 11, 2007 14:08 IST

A Taliban leader taking part in hostage negotiations for the lives of 21 South Koreans said on Saturday that the hostages would "definitely" be released and possibly as soon as "today or tomorrow."

Mullah Qari Bashir said that face-to-face negotiations with four Korean officials that began on Friday were going well and that the Taliban were sticking with their original demand that 21 Taliban prisoners be released from prisons in Afghanistan.

"God willing the government (of Afghanistan) and the government of Korea will accept this," Bashir said outside the Afghan Red Cross office in Ghazni. "Definitely these people will be released. God willing our friends (Taliban militants in prison) will be released."

Asked when the Koreans might be freed, he said, "Hopefully today or tomorrow."

"I'm very optimistic. The negotiations are continuing on a positive track," Bashir said.

Four South Korean officials and two top Taliban leaders met in person Saturday for a second round of talks over the fate of the 21 members of a church group held hostage for three weeks. The six officials met for four hours Friday evening in their first face-to-face talks.

The South Korean president's office confirmed the meeting but declined to give details, citing the safety of the captives.

"They are healthy and happy and secure," Bashir said of the hostages.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujaheed, said on Saturday that the government in Kabul gave the Taliban leaders, Bashir and Mullah Nasorullah, a written guarantee also signed by American and other foreign officials that the two Taliban would be safe. The talks are being held at the Afghan Red Cross office in Ghazni.

Red Cross officials drove the Korean delegates and the Taliban leaders to the office on Saturday in separate vehicles. Marajudin Pathan, the local governor, said on Friday that the Afghan government has "given them the freedom of secrecy to talk with each other."

He said no Afghan officials were taking part in the talks. He said the government had guaranteed the Taliban members' "safety and security."

Though Pathan has said the crisis was likely to be resolved by a ransom payment, the Taliban leaders on Saturday said they were still demanding that 21 militant prisoners be released.

The Afghan government has said previously that it would not release the prisoners out of fear it would encourage future kidnappings. The kidnapping of the 23 Koreans, the largest group of foreign hostages taken in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion, underscores the rise of the Taliban's power in rural Afghanistan the last two years, a time of increasing violence driven by a rise in suicide blasts and roadside bombings.

Two male captives were executed by gunfire.

The remaining captives and volunteers from a church group, who planned to do health work in Afghanistan, include 16 women and five men.

Nasorullah, the other Taliban leader taking part in the talks, appealed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President George W Bush to release Taliban prisoners. He acknowledged that people in South Korea were probably sad about the hostages, but said he was also sad for his militant friends in prison.

"I want to say to the world and Karzai and Bush to release my friends," Nasorullah said.