Talks in sight to free South Koreans held by Taliban (video)

( AFP ) - South Korean officials scrambled Friday to free 21 aid workers held by Afghanistan's Taliban, who said they had been told their key demand for a release of captured fighters would be met.

With two other aid workers already shot dead and the rest under threat of death, Afghan provincial officials and the hardline Islamic militia said there were plans for a face-to-face meeting between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation.

That was not confirmed by the South Korean government, but Seoul -- backed by relatives of the hostages -- has repeatedly stated its stiff opposition to any attempt to free them by military action.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing "informed sources," said that the Taliban had agreed to meet ambassador Kang Sung-Zu, although they had not yet agreed on a venue.

With most of the hostages sick, including two women reportedly in critical condition, the talks are likely to be held later Friday, the sources said.

Presidential spokesman Oh Young-Jin had no comment on the report

The abduction highlights growing insecurity in Afghanistan, one of the key battlegrounds in the US-led "war on terror", nearly six years after the United States led the invasion that toppled the Taliban government.

The crisis may overshadow Afghan President Hamid Karzai's summit Sunday and Monday with US President George W. Bush outside Washington.

A Taliban spokesman said late Thursday that it had been "assured" by South Korean officials that captured fighters would be released in exchange for the Christian aid workers, who are members of a church in suburban Seoul.

This has been the key demand of the extremists, who kidnapped the group of mainly women on July 19 as they travelled in the insurgency-hit south.

"We have had indirect contacts via telephone with some of the South Korean delegation, including the South Korean ambassador," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP.

"The Korean delegation has assured us they have spoken to the Americans and the Korean hostages will be freed in exchange with Taliban prisoners."

That could not be confirmed by the Afghan government, which has refused to release Taliban fighters for fear of encouraging kidnapping, and after heavy criticism from the United States over a similar deal in March.

Seoul has been pressing the United States, a close ally, and Pakistan for help.

Eight senior South Korean legislators flew Thursday to Washington to lobby for support, while Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon met US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in Manila.

Officials in Kabul have denied reports of a possible military operation to release the hostages, but a top US diplomat later spoke of the "potential" for action.

Richard Boucher, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, told reporters that "potential military pressures" against the Taliban were among the "many tools" available.

Still, he played down that prospect.

"When you have people shooting each other and fighting each other, it's not exactly the kind of contact that leads to the release of hostages," he said.

Meanwhile a South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong-chun, met a senior Pakistani minister and a pro-Taliban opposition leader in Islamabad, Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, to plead for help.

Afterwards, Rehman said Baek told him Seoul would complete the pullout of its 200 peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan ahead of the announced schedule at the end of this year.

A 62-year-old German engineer is also being held, along with four Afghans, by separate militants who are said to have close links to the Taliban. He was seized with another German, who collapsed and was then shot dead.

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