Taliban-S Koreans Seeking Venue for Talks

South Korean officials and the Taliban have struggled to agree on a venue for talks to save the lives of 21 hostages, as the rebels refused to allow Afghan doctors access to the group.

The militant group said after the latest deadline expired Wednesday they had not killed any more hostages, after already shooting dead two as they waited for direct talks with a South Korean delegation.

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi says there had been new telephone contact Friday (local time) with South Korean ambassador Kang Sung-Zu.

"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," he said.

The release of Taliban prisoners has been the key demand of the extremists, who kidnapped the mostly female group of Christian aid workers on July 19 as they traveled in the country's insurgency-hit south.

No guarantees

But South Korea has made it clear it can not guarantee anything.

"The Korean government is not in a position to give a direct answer to the Taliban's demand that its prisoners be swapped for Korean hostages," presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-Seon said.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency meanwhile cited "informed sources" saying direct talks between South Korean officials and the Taliban were likely to be held later Friday.

But Mr. Ahmadi said there had been no agreement on a venue with the Taliban rejecting a meeting in government-controlled territory.

They would however immediately agree to talks in its areas, in another country or under a UN guarantee of a "safe return" for its negotiators, he said.

The hardliners meanwhile refused to allow an Afghan medical team access to the hostages, most of whom are said to be ill, two of them seriously.

"Of course we cannot trust them. But we can offer a very simple solution: the government can release two of our prisoners in exchange for the two Koreans who are very sick and we can see for the rest later," Mr. Ahmadi said.

The Afghan government has refused to release Taliban fighters for fear of encouraging kidnapping, and after severe criticism from the United States over a similar deal in March that has been blamed for a recent rash of abductions.

Some of the kidnaps have been carried out by criminals.

einnews.com  (Posted 8/4/07)