18 South Koreans Abducted in Afghanistan

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban gunmen abducted at least 18 members of a South Korean church group in southern Afghanistan, and a purported spokesman for the Islamic militia said Friday it will question them about their activities in Afghanistan before deciding their fate.

The Koreans were seized Thursday in Ghazni province as they were traveling by bus from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar, said Ali Shah Ahmadzai, the provincial police chief.

“We are investigating, who are they, what are they doing in Afghanistan,” Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, told The Associated Press by satellite telephone. “After our investigation, the Taliban higher authorities will make a decision about their fate. Right now they are safe and sound.”

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The South Koreans’ bus driver, released late Thursday, said there were 18 women and five men on the bus, Ahmadzai said. The Taliban spokesman said 15 women and three men were seized. The discrepancy could not be immediately clarified.

The abductions came a day after two Germans and five of Afghan colleagues working on a dam project were kidnapped in central Wardak province. Ahmadi said the Taliban were also holding the two Germans, and threatened to kill them if Germany did not pull out its troops serving in the NATO-led force in the next 24 hours.

Meanwhile, two separate bombings in southern Afghanistan left five civilians dead, while a Taliban ambush killed six police officers, officials said.

_ A car bomb targeting a U.S.-led coalition convoy in Helmand province’s Sangin district killed two civilians and wounded two coalition troops, said Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, a coalition spokesman.

_ A mine exploded under a civilian car in Kandahar province’s Zhari district, killing three civilians in it, said Sayed Afghan Saqib, Kandahar’s police chief.

_ In Helmand’s Marja district, Taliban militants ambushed police Thursday, leaving six officers dead and two others wounded, said Muhammad Hussein, the provincial police chief.

Violence has soared in Afghanistan in recent weeks. More than 3,300 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an AP count based on numbers from Afghan and Western officials.

In the church member kidnapping, several dozen Taliban fighters stopped the bus and drove it into the desert before abandoning the vehicle and forcing the group to walk, Ahmadzai said. The driver was handed over to local villagers, while the fate of Koreans remains unknown, he said.

It was unclear what the Koreans were doing in Afghanistan.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that about 20 South Koreans were kidnapped near the Afghan capital Thursday afternoon.

“The government plans to do exert every possible effort so that our kidnapped citizens can return safely as soon as possible,” ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong told reporters in Seoul.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported the hostages were members of the Saemmul Community Church in Bundang, just south of the South Korean capital, Seoul.

An official at the Presbyterian church confirmed 20 of its members were in Afghanistan for volunteer work. The group left South Korea on July 13 and was to return on July 23, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said it was “aware of the statement by the so-called spokesman of the Taliban.”

“At the same time, we have a conflicting statement from a Taliban spokesman from yesterday. He indicated that the kidnapped Germans are not in the hands of the Taliban,” said Martin Jaeger, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry. “(Our) crisis team continues to work toward a swift release of the two kidnapped men.”

Outmatched by foreign troops, Taliban have resorted to kidnapping civilians caught traveling treacherous roads, particularly in the country’s south, where the insurgency is raging.

The tactic enables the militants to undermine President Hamid Karzai’s government by discouraging foreigners involved in reconstruction projects from venturing outside Afghanistan’s main cities.

Associated Press writer Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)