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Afghan military prepares for action

Targets area where hostages are held

A man read a leaflet dropped by Afghan National Army helicopters in Ghazni Province yesterday that warned of a military operation in the region where the militants are holding hostages. A man read a leaflet dropped by Afghan National Army helicopters in Ghazni Province yesterday that warned of a military operation in the region where the militants are holding hostages. (Omar Sobhani/REUTERS)

GHAZNI, Afghanistan -- The Afghan Army dropped leaflets yesterday warning of impending military action in the region where Taliban militants are holding 21 South Korean hostages, though the army said the operation is not connected to the captives.

Another deadline passed at noon with no word that any of the hostages had been killed, while the local governor said the Taliban militants had agreed to a face-to-face meeting requested by South Korea's ambassador. Two hostages have already been killed, though several deadlines have passed with no killings.

In Ghazni Province, where 23 South Koreans were kidnapped July 19 while driving from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar, Afghan soldiers in helicopters dropped leaflets telling citizens to move to government-controlled areas to avoid upcoming military action.

Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said the mission, the start of which could be days or weeks away, had been long-planned and had no connection to the Korean kidnapping case. But a show of military force in the region could place the kidnappers under further pressure.

Governor Marajudin Pathan said the Taliban agreed to a meeting with Korea's ambassador to Afghanistan, and officials were looking for suitable location to hold it. Pathan said he did not know when the meeting would happen. He also said another high-ranking official had arrived from South Korea to take part in talks.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who said he speaks for the Taliban militants, said after the noon deadline passed that the remaining 21 hostages were alive, though two female captives were gravely ill and could die at any time.

He reiterated that the militants still wanted their key demand met -- the release of Taliban prisoners in exchange for the lives of the Koreans.

A doctor who heads a private clinic said Afghan doctors would try to visit the hostages tomorrow and take them medicine. Dr. Mohammad Hashim Wahwaj said he did not have permission from the militants and did not know if the attempt would be successful.

Ahmadi, the purported Taliban spokesman, said Mullah Omar, the Taliban's elusive leader whose whereabouts are unknown, appointed three members of the Taliban's high council to oversee the hostage situation and they have the power to order them killed at any time.

The South Koreans, who are all Christians from the same church, are the largest group of foreign hostages taken in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.

Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of all remaining captives. The New York-based group said the Taliban have kidnapped at least 41 Afghan civilians so far this year and killed at least 23 of them. The rest remain missing.

"The taking of hostages is a war crime," Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

South Korea said it would send a parliamentary delegation to the United States to seek cooperation in resolving the crisis, and relatives of the hostages pleaded with US Embassy officials during an hour-long visit for help in negotiating their loved ones' release. The families were told their message would be passed on to Washington.

"We will hold on to any small hope to save them," Ryu Haeng-sik, whose wife Kim Yoon-yong, 35, is one of the hostages, said outside the embassy in Seoul. "We cannot say we're relieved, but there is no other way but to believe . . .that they're going to do their best."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "It's a difficult situation and it's one we want resolved in the best way possible, which is unharmed and safe to their families."

Both the families and the South Korean government have urged that previous international practice in dealing with abductions be set aside in the interest of human life -- effectively asking the United States to make an exception to its policy of refusing to make concessions to terrorist demands.

But the United States and other countries strongly criticized Afghanistan earlier this year when it released five Taliban prisoners to win the freedom of a kidnapped Italian journalist.

The South Korean president's office said that Washington was involved in efforts to win the hostages' release, but at a basic level. "There are some views that the United States holds [the keys to] everything. But that's a lot different from the fact," presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said.