75 Taliban killed in Afghan clashes

( AP ) - Troops killed at least 75 militants in three separate battles in southern Afghanistan, while the Taliban extended the deadline for the lives of 23 South Korean hostages until Tuesday evening.

South Korea's president appealed for calm as the deadline neared. Afghan elders and clerics were trying to negotiate with militants holding the hostages in central Afghanistan.

In southern Helmand province, Afghan troops ambushed by militants called in airstrikes and fought back with small-arms and mortar fire, the U.S.-led coalition said. The coalition said at least 36 insurgents were killed in the fighting Monday, but no Afghan or coalition troops were hurt.

In Uruzgan province, police clashed for three days with militants blocking the road leading to Kandahar province, leaving 26 militants and two policemen dead, said Wali Jan, the Uruzgan deputy highway police chief. NATO-led and Afghan army troops joined the battle Tuesday, reopening the road for civilians traffic, he said.

Another 13 suspected militants were killed in Kandahar province, the Defense Ministry said.

The battles took place in remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan, and the death tolls could not be independently confirmed.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said the militants had extended the deadline on the fate of the kidnapped South Koreans another day after the Afghan government refused to release any of the 23 Taliban prisoners the insurgents want freed.

The militants have pushed back their ultimatum at least three times.

"If the government won't accept these conditions, then it's difficult for the Taliban to provide security for these hostages, to provide health facilities and food," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by satellite phone. "The Taliban won't have any option but to kill the hostages."

Though some of Ahmadi's statements turn out to be true, he has also made repeated false claims, calling into question the reliability of his information.

A five-member delegation from Ghazni province traveled to a remote area of Qarabagh district to try to secure the Koreans' freedom, said Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi, the local police chief.

"Our negotiations are continuing," said Khial Mohammad Husseini, a lawmaker for Ghazni. "I hope that today we will get a good result."

The deputy interior minister, Abdul Khaliq said Afghanistan was not prepared to make a deal "against our national interest and our constitution," though he did not explicitly rule out freeing any prisoners.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun appealed for calm, saying at a Cabinet meeting "it's not a time to be hastily optimistic nor to be prematurely pessimistic about the outcome."

"It's important to resolve this in a calm and cool-headed attitude," he said. "The most important goal at this time is to get them back safely."

The South Korean Defense Ministry said it asked the Afghan military to refrain from conducting operations around the area where the hostages were believed held to avoid provoking the kidnappers.

The South Korean hostages, including 18 women, were kidnapped on Thursday while riding on a bus through Ghazni on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan's main thoroughfare.

More than 100 villagers in Ghazni demonstrated for their release Tuesday.

Violence has spiked sharply in Afghanistan the last two months. More than 3,500 people, mostly militants, have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of casualty figures provided by Western and Afghan officials.

In other violence, a roadside blast killed four U.S. soldiers in eastern Paktika province on Monday, said Gov. Mohammad Ekram Akhpelwak.

Norway said one if its soldiers was killed in Logar province, and NATO said a sixth soldier was killed in the south, though the soldier's nationality was not released.

The deaths bring to 114 the number of Western soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, including 54 Americans, according to the AP count.

Also Tuesday, Afghanistan's last king was to be buried in a hilltop shrine in Kabul next to his late wife and other members of the royal family in a ceremony attended by foreign and Afghan dignitaries.

Mohammad Zahir Shah, who oversaw four decades of relative peace before a 1973 palace coup ousted him and war shattered his country, died Monday at 92.

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