Afghanistan's Taliban was holding out on Saturday for a neutral venue for talks with South Korea over the fate of 21 hostages they are threatening to kill.
The Al-Qaeda-backed militants, who are demanding that some of their men are freed from jail in exchange for the captives, have agreed to talks with the South Koreans, but are refusing to meet them in government-controlled territory.
The South Korean aid workers, most of whom are female, are said to be ill after being held for more than two weeks in sweltering southern Afghanistan.
Two are said to be in a serious condition, but the hardliners yesterday refused to allow an Afghan medical team access to them.
The dragging crisis was set to overshadow talks beginning tomorrow in the United States between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his US counterpart George W Bush.
South Korea is pressing the US to intervene in the crisis and has sent eight senior legislators to Washington to rally international support for its efforts to save the Christian aid workers. Two of the group have already been killed.
The rebels say they have been in regular contact with South Korea, which has told them it is doing what it can to pressure Afghanistan and the US to drop their objections to a prisoner exchange.
"They told us that they are in negotiations with the Afghan and American governments to convince them to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for the South Korean hostages," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP on Friday.