More than 20 South Koreans Abducted in Southern Afghanistan
A leader of the Saemmul Community Church unveils the list of 19 volunteers sent to Kabul after they were kidnapped by Taliban militants, at the Presbyterian church in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. / Korea Times
By Gul Khan with Jung Sung-ki
KABUL _ More than 20 South Koreans were kidnapped by Taliban militants in the southern Ghazni Province of Afghanistan Thursday evening, though all the hostages are safe, according to local sources.
A source close to the Taliban told The Korea Times that the Islamic militia would likely release the female hostages first in a few days. Citing Afghan officials, the source said the number of captives is 30, with 14 women.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Seoul, however, said that 21 of them _ 16 women and five men _ South Koreans.
``It is difficult to say when the matter will be settled. Sometimes, it takes longer than we expect, probably weeks,'' the source said, requesting not to be named. ``It is speculated that the captors will release the women in a few days. But I cannot not say anything about the men.''
The bus carrying the South Koreans was hijacked on a highway in Qarabagh, Ghazni Province, on its way to Kabul from the southern province of Kandahar and the driver was forced to drive the vehicle to an unknown destination, according to Khowja Muhammad Siddiqi, chief of the Qarabagh District administrative body.
Taliban Commander Anas Sharif claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Sharif was quoted as saying that the vehicle was left in an uninhabited area and the hostages were moved to another location.
The ministry said 19 from the Saemmul Community Church south of Seoul were among the Korean abductees held by Taliban gunmen in the southern province, some 175 kilometers south of Kabul.
They are Bae Hyung-kyu (43), Lee Sun-young (37), Seo Myung-hwa (29), Cha Hye-jin (31), Seo Kyung-seok (27), Ko Se-hun (27), Kim Ji-na (32), Kim Kyung-ja (37), Yoo Jung-hwa (39), Je Chang-hee (38), Shim Sung-min (29), Lee Joo-yeon (27), Yoo Kyung-sik (55), Song Byung-woo (33), Lee Young-kyung (22), Han Ji-young (34), Kim Yun-young (35), An Hye-jin (31) and Lee Sung-eun (24).
Two more South Korean nationals from a non-governmental organization operating in Afghanistan were also abducted along with the church members, said ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong. There were not identified.
The church said the group went to the Islamic country to carry out volunteer medical service June 13 and was to return home Monday.
Zemari Bashari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, confirmed 15 Korean women and five men were abducted by armed men.
``We are still investigating which organization they were with, and why they were traveling to Kandahar,'' the spokesman said.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, however, said his group kidnapped 18 Koreans _ 15 women and three men.
``We are investigating, who they are, and what they are doing in Afghanistan,'' he said by telephone from an undisclosed location according to the Associated Press. ``After our investigation, the Taliban higher authorities will make a decision about their fate,'' it quoted Ahamadi as saying.
``Right now they are safe and sound and our demands and reaction will be announced later,'' said the militant.
The Taliban had kidnapped two Germans a day before the kidnapping of Koreans on July
18. They have asked Germany to pull out all its 3,000 troops, or they will kill the two German hostages. But there is no such statement regarding Koreans from the Taliban.
The foreign ministry said that it is confirming whether it is right or not on reports of Korean local media that Talian militants "threatened to kill 18 Korean hostages unless the South Korean government pull out its troops by Saturday noon."
About 200 South Korean engineer troops are stationed in the war-torn country on humanitarian and rehabilitation operations as part of the international coalition forces led by the U.S. and NATO.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministry has set up a task force headed by a vice minister and a similar team at the Korean embassy in Kabul to handle the issue, ministry officials said.
The ministry has banned South Korean civilians from visiting Afghanistan without permission, they said. It asked Afghanistan authorities Friday not to issue visas to South Korean tourists anymore.
There are about 200 Korean civilians including 86 from NGO groups in Afghanistan as well as 210 South Korean non-combatant troops based in Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
Taliban insurgents have kidnapped a number of foreign nationals as part of their campaign to oust the Afghan government and its Western backers. They have increasingly turned away from classic guerrilla warfare and instead have taken up what Afghan officials call ``terror tactics'' _ kidnapping, suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
A day earlier, two German engineers and their five Afghan colleagues were abducted by armed men in Maidan Wardak Province, south of the capital.
The German engineers were staffers of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and they were working on the reconstruction of a dam project in the war-torn country. They were abducted while visiting the site. Taliban militants say their elders would decide the fate of the abducted men.
The Afghan government has cautioned the foreigners against traveling without an escort outside Kabul, the fortified capital. The region where the Korean nationals were abducted is known to be one of the most lawless areas.
The southern region of Afghanistan, including the four provinces of Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan and Helmand, are considered the most dangerous and unsecured areas, especially for foreigners.
A few months ago, militants kidnapped French journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo along with his Afghan interpreter and driver in the same region. The French journalist was set free in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners, while his Afghan interpreter Ajmal Naqshbandi and driver Sayed Agha were beheaded by the militants, who accused them of spying for foreign troops.