By BosNewsLife News Center
KABUL/SEOUL (BosNewsLife) -- The militant Taliban movement threatened on Sunday, July 22, to start killing 23 South Korean evangelical Christians if South Korea did not agree to withdraw its 200 military engineers and medics from Afghanistan, and the Afghan government did not free Taliban prisoners.
The Taliban kidnappers said thay had Seoul a further 24 hours to pull its forces out of Afghanistan to Monday 1430 UTC.
The threat came as Afghan government officials went to the area to ask tribal elders to mediate for their release while Afghan and foreign troops stood by ready for an operation to free them. South Korean officials also arrived in Afghanistan Sunday, July 22, to begin negotiations.
The South Korean government has said it will withdraw its troops at the end of this year as planned. It was not clear if the Afghan government was ready to release prisoners, amid growing tensions. In March however, Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Franco Danieli said five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for the release of the Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo.
Mastrogiacomo, a correspondent for the daily newspaper la Repubblica, was freed March 19 after being seized by Taliban insurgents on March 5.
But as hours passed by Sunday, July 22, the Afghan Defense Ministry suggested Afghan army and coalition forces were on stand-by in Ghazni province, south of the Afghan capital, Kabul, to rescue the South Korean Christians by force if needed. "They are awaiting orders to assault suspected locations," the ministry said, adding that, "The operation will be launched if Defense Ministry authorities deem it necessary."
The Christians, all in their 20 and 30s, left on July 13 for the staunchly Islamic country to "do evangelical activity and volunteer workâ€ in hospitals and childrenâ€™s homes, their church said. They were due to return home by Monday, July 23.
However the South Koreans were seized while traveling on a bus on Thursday, July 19, shortly after the Germans were kidnapped on the highway linking Kabul with Kandahar. The Taliban set a seven PM Sunday deadline (1430 UTC) for an answer to its ultimatum that all South Korean troops leave Afghanistan, but the deadline passed without any visible movement.
Negotiations over the release of the South Korean hostages began as authorities tried to confirm the fate of the two Germans taken hostage by Taliban militants last week. The Taliban said it killed both Germans, but Afghan and German authorities said they believe one hostage died of a heart attack because of stress, and the other is still alive.
On Sunday, July 22, police recovered the body of the man, who was abducted on Wednesday, July 18, in the Jaghato district of southern Wardak province, provincial police chief Hewas Mohammad Muslim told reporters. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected Taliban demands, saying Germany's 3,000 troops in Afghanistan will remain there. About 500 German civilian aid workers are also in Afghanistan.
In South Korea Christians, including the president, began praying for Afghanistan and the evangelical hostages in particular. "I am praying for their safe return home," said South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun. "The kidnappers must return the South Koreans unharmed at the earliest possible date," Roh said in a speech on national television.
"We had an overnight prayer session, praying for their safe return," said the hostages' Saem-Mul Protestant Community Church in Bundang on Seoulâ€™s outskirts. In published remarks relatives also pleaded for the safe return of their loved ones and some urged Seoul to meet the Talibanâ€™s reported demand and pull out its troops immediately.
"I wish all the news reports (about the hostage taking) were false," the French News Agency (AFP) quoted Seo Jeong-Bae, 57, whose two children were captured by the insurgents. "Kyeong-Suk and Myeong-Hwa were doing voluntary medical work. How would I carry on with my life if anything bad happened to my kids?â€ he said, reportedly breaking down and crying.
Lee Sang-min, 30, whose younger sister has also been kidnapped, said he could not believe the news. "It felt like my heart stopped when I first heard the news. I couldnâ€™t believe it," he reportedly told Yonhap news agency.
Despite the threats, South Korean evangelicals remain active in the country. Last year, the South Korean government reportedly tried to stop a group of 2,000 Korean Christians traveling to Afghanistan for a peace conference, fearing for their safety. However, 900 of them still came to Afghanistan, causing an uproar among Muslim militants.
Some Christian converts have been threatened with execution, including Abdul Rahman an Afghan man who converted to Christianity and could have been executed for renouncing Islam. He received asylum in Italy last year.
Christian Freedom International (CFI), a US-based religious right group, said last year it believes there are at least 10,000 Christian concerts in Afghanistan, many of whom gather in underground churches. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and Eric Leijenaar. BosNewsLife Anti-Terrorism Task Forces--covering the threats of our time).
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