South Korea makes first contact with hostage

( Reuters ) - South Korean officials have made their first contact with one of the 21 hostages kidnapped by Taliban insurgents more than two weeks ago, an official in Seoul said on Monday, but there have been no signs of progress.

"There was a telephone conversation with one hostage Saturday afternoon," said a South Korean official on condition of anonymity. The official declined to give further details, citing a potential risk to the safety of the hostages in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have killed two of their captives sent by a Christian church in suburban Seoul to do relief work and threatened to kill the remaining 21 if the Afghan government fails to release rebel prisoners.

Yonhap news agency said it had made contact with two women hostages through a source in Afghanistan over the weekend. The hostages spoke briefly by telephone.

In one call, the captive said the hostages had been separated into several groups and two Koreans were seriously ill.

In the other, the captive said: "We are all sick and want to meet our families again at home...the Taliban point guns at us and threaten to kill us if the Korean government does not accept their demands," Yonhap reported.

Kabul has refused to free jailed Taliban militants, saying that would encourage more kidnappings.

Afghan doctors delivered medicine on Sunday for the hostages, almost all of whom are young women.

The South Korean government is under intense domestic pressure to secure the release of the hostages, but Seoul has told the insurgents there is a limit to what it can do because it has no power to free prisoners in Afghan jails.

A delegation of South Korean officials was in Ghazni province, where the Koreans were abducted, seeking face-to-face talks with the kidnappers. But there was no agreement yet on where to meet.

The hostage stand-off is likely to cast a shadow over two days of security talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President George W. Bush due to begin at the U.S. presidential retreat, Camp David, later on Monday.

Several South Korean politicians have called on the United States to help resolve the crisis.

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