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by Han Mi-Young

Taliban Apparently Holding Journalist Hostage for More Balanced Reporting

(IPS) SEOUL -- South Koreans are shocked, confused and furious over the uncertain fate of 21 compatriots held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the government presses the United States and Pakistan to support its efforts to bring them back alive.

On Thursday afternoon, 20 days after he left for Afghanistan to teach children there, 29-year-old Shim Sung-Min, returned in a coffin. His distraught father, Shim Jin-Pie, 63, saw his bullet-riddled body, and cried, "Sung-Min has been a good and faithful son who has cheerfully helped other people in need."

Sung-Min was one of 23 South Koreans, including 18 women in their 20s and 30s, who were kidnapped by the Taliban on Jul. 19 in Ghazi province on the Kabul-Kanawha highway, the largest group of foreign hostages taken in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Min Byung-Wook, 29, a friend of Sung-Min wrote in his blog (web log): "You've usually smiled away even when we had a horrible military training together. You are such a fragile heart that you've seldom passed off anyone who needs your help."

Sung-Min was the second hostage killed after the slain group leader, Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu, 42. Bae's body, punctured by eight bullet holes, was returned home, although his family had requested that it be kept at a U.S. base in Afghanistan until all the members of his group were released and they could accompany the pastor's body back to Seoul.

"My daughter asked me why Dad is not coming back home. I told her your dad left on his birthday," said his forlorn wife. His abductors killed Bae on his birthday. The pastor had written a note some months ago saying that in case of his death, his body should be donated to medicine to help someone who needs it.

The South Korean government hinted Thursday at the chance of opening direct negotiations with the Taliban. "We keep all of the possible contacts with Taliban open in search of feasible solutions," said Cheon Ho-sun, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House.

Relatives of the remaining hostages wait anxiously for news about the fate of their loved ones. There was great relief on Thursday when reports that the use of military force against the Taliban was being considered were proved false.

The Islamic fighters, who have twice extended the deadline, are demanding that unless the government agrees to swap the hostages for Taliban prisoners, they would be killed.

Meanwhile, health concerns, particularly of the women prisoners, are growing. The Taliban have released audio and videotapes of the hostages. In one, an unidentified woman is heard saying, "We need to get out of this soon, most of us are very sick."

Kim Take-Young, 63, confirmed that his daughter, Han Jig-Young, 34, was in fragile health when she left for Afghanistan. "I tried to stop her but she insisted saying it would be okay. She was missing the Afghan kids that she had taught last year," the father said.

The hostage crisis has shaken South Korea. Most hostages are either nurses or English teachers who had volunteered to spend their summer vacation in Afghanistan taking care of patients or teaching English and computer skills to children.

Public anger has been directed against the Saemmul Church that sent the volunteers to the conflict-ravaged country. A barrage of protesting mails paralysed its official website, forcing it to shut down. One third of South Korea's 48 million people are Christians.

Park Eon-Jo, senior pastor of the church, has tendered an apology: "It is pain beyond any word... I deeply apologize to all of the people and in particular to the families. These 23 people went to Afghanistan because they loved Afghan people. They saved money and gave up taking summer vacation for Afghan people!"

South Koreans are divided over whether or not it was right for their compatriots to volunteer in Afghanistan. Cha In-Pie, a popular actor, wrote in his blog: "You are a coward if you feel ashamed of their pain... Yes, it could have been a wrong decision to put their lives at risk. However, how could we criticise their choice to do good even in a country where no one else would even bother to be there."

Public anger has also turned into frustration, as the Seoul government has hit a wall in its diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the hostages. Since the Taliban will only accept the release of their colleagues held by the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul, Seoul finds it has to rely on Washington or the Afghan government in the hostage crisis -- and Pakistan.

Special presidential envoy Baek Jong-chun, now in Kabul, will stop briefly in Islamabad on his way home on Friday, after failing to make any headway despite a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "Pakistan may hold a key. It may be the only country the Taliban listens to," says Kim Jin-Tae of the Korea Research Institute on Terrorism.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, opposition leader in the Pakistan National Assembly, has appealed to the Taliban to release the hostages on humanitarian grounds. He had offered his help Tuesday during a meeting with South Korea's Ambassador Kim Jooseok.

Still, most Koreans think only the U.S. can save the hostages from certain death.

Jeong Dong-Young who heads a minority opposition party, said: "The U.S. is the only party that holds a key to the release of the hostages." Another opposition leader, Kwon Young-Gil, said: "Nothing should be more important than the life of South Koreans. It is more important than the principle of the U.S. not talking to terrorist groups."

Eight senior members of South Korea's National assembly left on Thursday for Washington to urge U.S. officials to take active steps in the hostage crisis.

"We cannot do without help from the international community," said the non-governmental group Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in a statement.

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Albion Monitor   August 2, 2007   (

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