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S. Korea, US Agree to Hold Off on Military Force in Afghanistan Hostage Crisis

Senior South Korean and U.S. officials say they have agreed to hold off on using military force to free 21 Korean hostages being held in Afghanistan. Taleban insurgents have already killed two of the hostages, and intensive diplomatic efforts are underway to save the rest. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

The body of 29-year-old Shim Sung-min arrived at South Korea's main international airport Thursday. Taleban insurgents executed Shim by gunfire this week, as they did with 42-year-old Bae Hyung-kyu last week. The two men were among 23 South Korean Christian activists kidnapped in Afghanistan two weeks ago.

The South Korean authorities are facing enormous domestic pressure to save the lives of the remaining 21 hostages. But they continue to say that for now, military options are off the table.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon met Thursday in Manila with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on the sidelines of a regional gathering. The two officials ruled out any kind of forcible rescue attempt.

Here in Seoul, South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said any such attempt would require South Korean permission.

Cheon says he is not aware of any plans by the Afghan government or international stabilization forces to attempt a rescue.

Senior presidential envoy Baek Jong-chun has spent this week in Afghanistan seeking a resolution to the crisis. He traveled to neighboring Pakistan Thursday as part of a desperate effort by Seoul to enlist the influence of Muslim leaders. He is expected to return to Seoul on Friday.

Eight senior members of South Korea's National Assembly who left for Washington on a previously scheduled trip Thursday were expected to urge U.S. officials to take an active approach to the crisis. Some South Koreans are saying Washington could help end the crisis by influencing Afghanistan's government to meet the hostage-takers' demand, and swap the hostages for captured insurgents.

But Washington has a strict policy against negotiating with terrorists, and reiterated this week that it will not do so in this case.

In Manila, foreign ministers attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum issued a statement unanimously condemning the abductions, and calling for the hostages' release. Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo, the forum chairman, extended the ministers' sympathy to South Korea.

"May I take this occasion, as we meet the Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Song, to express to him the foreign minister's sympathies to the Republic of Korea, to him, and to the families of those who have been taken hostage in Afghanistan, and express our deepest regret at what has happened," said Romulo.

The kidnappers have set several deadlines since the hostage drama began, saying they will kill more hostages if their demands are not met. The latest of these deadlines passed Wednesday with no further killings.

About 40 Muslim guest workers in South Korea made their voices heard at a public gathering in Seoul Thursday. The group accused the Taleban kidnappers of violating Islamic principles, and called for the hostages' release.