Taliban deadline looms with fears for 21 South Korean hostages

A noon deadline imposed on 21 surviving South Korean hostages kidnapped by the Taliban approached Wednesday with negotiations apparently deadlocked and international concern growing.  

There were also new fears for a German engineer held since July 18, a day before 23 South Koreans were captured, after Al-Jazeera television broadcast late Tuesday a video that it said showed him pleading for his life.

The footage was the first to show the engineer whom the Taliban has claimed has been sick and drifting in and out of consciousness.

The hardline Islamic militia has already shot dead two of the South Korean aid workers, the second late Monday. Another German captured with the engineer has also died but the cause is not clear.

As the deadline loomed, the insurgents warned that two women among the 21 South Korean captives were gravely ill and in danger of dying.

The militia want at least eight Taliban prisoners freed from Afghan jails before it will release the Koreans, but the government has rejected the demand after being internationally condemned for a similar deal in March.

The insurgent group set the latest deadline of noon (0730 GMT) after shooting in the head a 29-year-old hostage when two deadlines passed on Monday.

“If our demands are not met by then, we will start killing the rest of the South Koreans,” Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP.

The bloodied body of Shim Sung-Min, who had reportedly taught disabled children, was found early Tuesday in the southern province of Ghazni, about 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of Kabul.

That of pastor Bae Hyung-Kyu, 42, was found there last Wednesday. The church group he was leading was captured in the same area while travelling to Kabul as part of an aid mission in the insurgency-hit and strictly Islamic nation.

Monday’s murder was widely condemned, including by UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the Arab League and Al-Azhar, the premier Sunni institution of learning.

The South Korean government, which has reportedly attempted to offer the rebels a ransom, urged “an immediate end to these heinous acts of killing innocent people in order to press for demands that it can’t meet.”

It called for “flexibility” to save the 21 other captives.

But a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said authorities should not bend to the demands of “terrorists” for fear of encouraging kidnapping. “This shouldn’t become an industry,” spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said.

Talks on the fate of the South Koreans continued Tuesday but there had been little movement, a member of the government’s negotiating team told AFP.

Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, pressed negotiators to agree to his organisation’s demands so the two ill women could be released.

“Their condition is very bad. We don’t have enough medicines — maybe they will die,” he said late Tuesday.

The video aired on Al-Jazeera showed a man that it said was the German hostage standing in a rocky clearing with several men pointing guns at him.

There was no sound in the clip but the broadcaster said the captive called on Germany and the United States to pull their troops out of Afghanistan so that his his life could be spared.

He was captured with a German colleague, who has since died in unclear circumstances, and five Afghans, one of whom escaped.

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