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S. Koreans Ask for US 'Flexibility' in Afghanistan Hostage Ordeal


South Koreans have begun appealing for U.S. help in freeing 21 Korean hostages facing death threats in Afghanistan. Families of the hostages and Korean government officials are urging Washington to adjust its policy against negotiating with the Taleban, but U.S. officials say that will not happen. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from the South Korean capital.

Another deadline passed Wednesday with no word on the fate of 21 surviving hostages kidnapped almost two weeks ago by Taleban insurgents in Afghanistan.

The insurgents have executed two hostages over the past six days, and warned of more killings if Taleban comrades are not released from Afghan prisons. Families of the hostages have begun directing an emotional appeal squarely at the United States.

Standing alongside other hostage family members in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul Wednesday, Lee Chae-bok urges Washington to consider Koreans' views, and help to resolve the situation in a humanitarian way.

The families handed a petition to U.S. diplomats asking for Washington to help strike a deal with the Taleban kidnappers.

The U.S. government was among those that were sharply critical earlier this year when the Afghan government arranged a swap of five Taleban prisoners for an Italian journalist taken hostage. U.S. officials argued then that such concessions send a message to terrorists that hostage-taking is beneficial, raising the likelihood of future abductions.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Tom Casey told reporters Tuesday that Washington does not make concessions to terrorists, and is unlikely to do so.

"I think U.S. policy, again, is longstanding," Casey said. "It's been there for many, many years and I don't see any indication that we're going to be changing that any time soon."

That argument may ring hollow for some South Koreans in the emotion of the moment. Jang Do-jeong, a man in his 20s, attended Wednesday's gathering of families at the U.S. Embassy, carrying a sign that said "Bush, talk to the Taleban." He says he is angry at the United States, and that he is not alone.

He says if more Korean hostages are harmed, there will be a surge of South Korean anger and protests against the United States.

Pleas to the U.S. are not coming just from the Korean public. Members of South Korea's two main political parties, usually fierce rivals, issued a joint statement Wednesday calling on the United States and the United Nations to "shift their stance and help prevent these imminent killings."

For the second time this week, South Korean presidential spokesman Chun Ho-seon said Wednesday that some U.S. "flexibility" would be welcome.

He says Seoul respects the general policies of the U.S. and Afghan governments, but urges them to take "flexible action from a humanitarian perspective."

Earlier Wednesday, family members spoke to the media at the South Korean Christian church that dispatched the group to Afghanistan for aid work. Kim Taek-kyoung, mother of one of the hostages, issued her own emotional plea for U.S. involvement.

She says she wants to meet with President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She wishes she could go get her daughter, and would rather be killed herself by the insurgents than see her daughter die.

The United States led a multinational force that toppled the Taleban regime in Afghanistan soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington. The U.S. dominates international efforts to stabilize the country, and South Korea has contributed several hundred non-combat personnel to the effort.

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