Â KABUL, Afghanistan – Two lawmakers â€” one of them a former Taliban member â€” and several influential elders have joined negotiations with the hardline militia to step up pressure for the release of 22 South Korean hostages, an official said Saturday.
A South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong-chun, was scheduled to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, an official from the South Korean Embassy in Kabul said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy.
The Taliban has demanded the release of insurgent prisoners in exchange for the South Koreans, who were captured on July 19. One of the original 23 captives was shot to death on Wednesday.
A former Taliban commander â€” Abdul Salaam Rocketi, now a member of parliament â€” has joined the talks, said Shirin Mangal, spokesman of the Ghazni provincial governor. A second lawmaker and several respected leaders from around Qarabagh, the area in Ghazni province where the hostages were taken, have also joined, he said.
“Today we are hopeful to get a good result because more and more elders have gathered from Ghazni,” said Qarabagh police chief Khwaja Mohammad. “I hope the Taliban will listen to these negotiations now because they are neutral people â€” elders from around Qarabagh district.”
After the meeting on Saturday, the elders and clerics returned to their respective villages to ask other community leaders to join them in talks with the Taliban living in those areas, said Ghazni lawmaker Habib Rahman, who also attended the gathering.
“When the elders and clerics go to talk with the Taliban, they will explain once again that taking hostages is not acceptable in Islam and Afghan culture,” Rahman said.
He hoped the Taliban from other villages would be able to persuade the hostage-takers to release their captives.
“My message to the Koreans, in particular to the families of these men and women being held by the Taliban, is this: We are optimistic. Don’t worry. We are doing our best … Please be patient. A lot of people are involved today. Inshallah (if God wills it), they will not kill them,” he said.
Afghan officials have said they are optimistic the hostages could be freed without further bloodshed, although the Taliban said the captives would be killed if their demands were not met.
Negotiators were struggling with conflicting demands made by the kidnappers, including the release of Taliban prisoners and ransom money.
Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the militants hoped the South Korean envoy would be able to “persuade the Afghan government” to swap imprisoned militants for the captives.
“If they don’t release the Taliban prisoners, then the Taliban does not have any option other than to kill the Korean hostages,” he said, reiterating an earlier threat.
Local tribal elders and clerics from Qarabagh have been conducting negotiations by telephone with the captors for several days.
The South Koreans, including 18 women, were kidnapped while traveling by bus on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan’s main thoroughfare. Ahmadi said the hostages were being held in small groups in different locations and that some of them were in poor health.