As Deadline Looms, South Korea Negotiates For Life of Its Hostages in Afghanistan

With an announced life-or-death deadline rapidly approaching, South Korea is hoping to save the lives of 23 of its citizens taken hostage in Afghanistan by Taleban insurgents. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, however, the captives are not particularly popular back home.

A spokesman for Afghanistans's Taleban militia said Monday the 23 South Korean hostages are in good health - but warned that any operation to rescue them would endanger their lives further.

The insurgents had threatened to execute them by late Sunday night if Taleban prisoners were not released, but they later extended the deadline by 24 hours. Negotiations for the captives' release are underway.

The 23 South Koreans - 18 of them women - are mainly in their 20s and 30s. They are members of a Christian church near Seoul that has sent other members to Afghanistan in the past for what it describes as humanitarian activity. This group was kidnapped Thursday.

While their loved ones pray for their release, their visit to one of the world's hotbeds of Islamic militancy has come under strong criticism back home. Many here describe them as missionaries who unnecessarily put themselves in danger in a thinly veiled attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Some of the abductees' own online postings have sparked anger here. One of them posted a weblog entry about singing Christian hymns in an Afghan mosque. The group also posted a photo of themselves posing next to a South Korean government sign banning travel to Afghanistan.

Park Eun-joo, a pastor at the South Korean church that sent the travelers, says it is inaccurate to describe them as missionaries.

Park says his church respects Islam, and the members only went to Afghanistan to help people. He apologizes to the abductees' families.

Family members also made a public apology for the situation to their fellow South Koreans Monday. On Sunday, the families made emotional pleas for their loved ones' lives.

The mother of abducted brother and sister Seo Myung-hwa and Seo Kyung-seok told a news conference she believes her children will come back safely, because they went with good intentions.

Officials in Seoul said Monday that unauthorized travel to Afghanistan in the future will be punishable by prison sentences and stiff fines.

South Korean negotiators are in Afghanistan, but their efforts are complicated by Seoul's policy against dealing directly with the Taleban. For now, the negotiators are dealing with the kidnappers through Afghan tribal elders.

The Taleban originally demanded the withdrawal of several hundred South Korean non-combat military and civilian personnel supporting multinational stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, but later withdrew that condition. Even before the abduction, South Korea had announced it would withdraw its personnel by the end of the year. However, Washington is encouraging Seoul to extend its involvement.

South Korea is the world's second most active nation in terms of Christian missionary activity, after the United States. More than 12 thousand South Korean Christians are estimated to be involved in projects in 160 nations.