Army ‘surrounds Taleban captors’
Security forces have surrounded the location where Taleban fighters are holding 23 South Korean hostages, an Afghan defence ministry official says.
But – amid talks to secure their release – the official said a military operation had not yet begun to free the hostages in Ghazni province.
A team of hostage negotiators arrived in Kabul from Seoul earlier on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the body of one of two German nationals abducted on Wednesday has been found, local police said.
There had been confusion over the fate of the two Germans, taken in a separate kidnapping incident to the South Korean group.
A Taleban spokesman had said both men were killed on Saturday because Germany refused demands to withdraw its 3,000-strong force from the country.
But Berlin said it believed one hostage was still alive and the other died of a heart attack or stress.
Mohammad Eawaz Mazlooam Yar, a senior police officer in Wardak province, told the BBC: “We have found a dead body of a German in Jaghatu district. At this time we don’t have any further details.”
The Koreans were abducted in Ghazni, south-west of Kabul, from a bus travelling from Kandahar to Kabul on Thursday.
The Taleban say they want to swap the 23 men and women for jailed fighters and are also demanding that South Korean forces leave Afghanistan.
A council of tribal elders is said to be trying to negotiate the hostages’ release and a South Korean diplomat is already in the province.
Gen Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, told the BBC: “We have surrounded the area. We haven’t launched an attack right now and we are assessing the situation.”
The ministry toned down initial reports that an operation to free the hostages had begun.
A spokesman for Nato forces said it was unaware of an operation but was ready to help the Afghan and South Korean governments if asked.
The Taleban initially said there were 18 hostages but have revised up the figure to 23. They are reportedly Christians on an evangelical and aid mission. At least 15 are said to be women.
A Taleban spokesman said on Sunday the hostages were in good health.
The seizure is the largest-scale abduction of foreigners since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001.
An eight-strong South Korean delegation, including a presidential envoy, arrived in Kabul on Sunday and will meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials.
Seoul confirmed on Sunday that preparations for its troops to withdraw by the end of the year were under way but that the withdrawal had already been announced and had not been affected by the abductions.
President Roh Moo-hyun appeared on South Korean television on Saturday to urge the release of the citizens held captive.
Relatives of the abductees gathered at churches on Sunday to pray for their release.
On Sunday Taleban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi reiterated a claim that both Germans had been killed and that the bodies would be returned “without conditions” if requested.
Germany’s foreign minister earlier backed Afghan government reports that one of two Germans died of natural causes and was not shot.
The Germans, whose identity has not been revealed, were seized with a number of Afghans in Wardak, where they had been working on a dam project.
The Taleban spokesman said both men were killed on Saturday because Germany refused to withdraw its forces.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “We must assume that one of the kidnapped Germans died in captivity.
“Nothing points to murder, all signs tell us that he fell victim to the strain to which his kidnappers subjected him.”
One Afghan provincial official said the German who died was a diabetic who had no access to insulin.
But if the killings are confirmed they would be the first of foreign hostages since the death of an Indian engineer in April last year.
The fate of the Afghans captured with the Germans is unknown.