Taliban: "Satisfied" In Hostage Talks

Protesters stage a candle rally demanding that the United States engage in negotiations for the safe return of South Korean hostages in Afghanistan, near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on Aug. 2, 2007.
Protesters stage a candle rally demanding that the United States engage in negotiations for the safe return of South Korean hostages in Afghanistan, near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul on Aug. 2, 2007.

KABUL, Afghanistan (CBS/AP) The senior Taliban commander in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, where the group is holding 21 South Koreans captive, told CBS News on Thursday that the militants are "satisfied" with negotiations, and were not planning to kill any more of the hostages imminently.

"We are optimistic for progress and we are not going to set any new deadlines, but if we realize that we are not heading in the right direction, we may make another deadline," Mullah Sabir Nasir told CBS News in a telephone interview.

Nasir said the Taliban was now negotiating directly with South Korean officials, and "60 percent progress has been made."

"We are satisfied by the explanations of the South Korean ambassador, and we understand their obligations," he said.

Nasir said a face-to-face meeting of Taliban and South Korean representatives was being arranged and would likely take place within several days.

Taliban commanders have expressed frustration all week over what they called the "lies" and "cheating" of Afghan government negotiators who had been acting as intermediaries between the two parties.

Nasir warned Thursday: "We are satisfied with the progress so far, but hope they (South Koreans) will not repeat the mistakes of the Afghan government."

"Hopefully in the next few days we will get a result, but it depends on the honesty of the South Korean negotiators," he added.

Regarding information that two of the female hostages were critically ill - provided by a spokesman for the group who has given some information that turned out to be less than accurate - Nasir said they were sick, "but they didn't become ill with us; they were already sick."

He would not elaborate on the severity of their condition. Asked whether it could be critical, he said, "Allah knows if it is critical."

Dr. Mohammad Hashim Wahaaj, head of a private clinic in Kabul, said six Afghan health workers would go to Ghazni on Friday in a bid to treat the sick hostages.

"Our aim is just treatment of the patients," Wahaaj said Friday at his clinic in Kabul. "I don't think that the Taliban would harm us because we are doctors, and there will be some Taliban who might need our help."

Earlier Thursday, Waheedullah Mujadidi, head of an Afghan delegation negotiating with the Taliban, said the militants had agreed to meet with South Korea's ambassador, but they had not yet found a suitable place, said.

Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the South Koreans had not requested direct talks with the militants, but the insurgents would be willing to hold such a meeting in Taliban-controlled territory.

"This problem belongs to only the Korean government and the Korean people, and that's why the Taliban Islamic Emirate has told the Korean government to force the Kabul administration and to force the U.S. government to release the Taliban prisoners," Ahmadi said.

A South Korean Embassy official in Kabul would not confirm any Korean efforts to hold face-to-face talks with Taliban.

Afghan officials have said that the militants have demanded the release of local Taliban fighters from Ghazni province as well as a former militia spokesman, Mohammad Hanif, who was arrested by Afghan intelligence agents earlier this year.

The Afghan government has said it is opposed to a prisoner swap, concerned it could encourage more kidnappings.

The 23 Koreans were kidnapped in Ghazni province on July 19 as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar. Two male hostages were already killed by the militants. Their bodies have been recovered.

Afghan soldiers in helicopters dropped leaflets on Wednesday telling citizens that they needed to move to government-controlled areas to avoid upcoming military action.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. 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.

At a regional Asian security conference in the Philippines, South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte agreed to place top priority on safely freeing the hostages, ruling out a military option for ending the standoff, a South Korean official said Thursday. He asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

Meanwhile, a delegation of eight South Korean lawmakers departed for Washington on Thursday to urge the United States to help negotiate the release of the hostages.

"We will sincerely plead with the United States to take more substantial and meaningful measures to resolve this crisis," Rep. Cheon Young-se of the Democratic Labor Party said before the delegation set off.

They will meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.