KOREA: Female hostage begs for help in interview

Taliban commander arranges interview for CBS News with hostage Yo Cyun-Ju who begged in Korean and in Farsi for help

The Korea Herald
Friday, July 27, 2007

By Lee Joo-hee

A South Korean woman being held hostage by the Taliban begged for help and rescue in a telephone interview released by the U.S. CBS News Thursday.

The commander of the militant group reportedly arranged the first interview with a hostage in an apparent bid to put pressure on the Korean and Afghan governments.

"We are having a very difficult time. Please help us," said the woman who identified herself as Yo Cyun-ju.

Yo's family confirmed that it was her voice, said Cha Sung-min, leader of the families of the 23 abductees.

She is believed to have guided the Korean church volunteers in a trip for medial and educational aid.

"We are all pleading for you to help us get out of here as soon as possible... Really, we beg you."

The hostage spoke for about three minutes using both the Korean language and the Afghan dialect of Farsi in the exclusive interview.

"We are all very sick and very ill. We are in a desperate situation and are barely getting by day-by-day," she said.

It was the first direct communication with one of the 23 South Korean hostages who were taken captive at gunpoint while traveling from the capital city of Kabul on Thursday last week.

She told CBS News that the hostages were detained in two groups adding she was with 17 other female captives and that the men were being held in another place.

Due to the different location, the hostage was not aware of the death of Bae Hyung-kyu, 42, who was reportedly shot to death by the kidnappers on Wednesday.

Observers said the disclosure of the hostage's voice appeared to be an elaborately crafted tactic by the abductors to enhance their leverage in the ongoing negotiations.

News reports continued to vary over the progress of the negotiation which reached a critical level following the killing of Bae.

Japan's NHK reported that a negotiator from the Afghan government ruled out the possibility of giving in to the Taliban which demanded Kabul release their fighters from prison in return for the hostages.

Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press, in the meantime, quoted another Afghan official as saying that the negotiation would bring a positive outcome.

Senior Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Sabir contacted by CBS News on Thursday denied Yo's claims of the hostages falling ill. He said only one of the male hostages was sick.

He was also quoted as saying that the group had provided a doctor for the patient and he was also being looked after by several of his fellow hostages with medical training.

CBS News quoted Sabir as saying that the last deadline set by the Taliban for the Afghan government to release prisoners had passed before dawn Thursday morning.

But AFP reported that the militants have extended the deadline again until 4:30 p.m. Korea time following a request from the Afghan government.

"The deputy interior minister asked us to give them extra time until tomorrow 12:00 (0730 GMT) to be able to handle the issue. The Taliban leading council decided to give them time until tomorrow (Friday) noon," purported Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi was quoted as saying.

Two Taliban members from Ghazni, Abdul salam and Mulvi Abdullah, were conducting the negotiations with officials by phone. No face-to-face contact had been made, Sabir was quoted as saying.

With the lives of the 22 remaining South Korean hostages hanging in the balance, the Seoul government yesterday dispatched a presidential envoy to the area to pick up the failed negotiations.

Despite the previous deadline passing yesterday, the Taliban insurgents did not kill the hostages, giving a glimmer of hope for a breakthrough but signaling a gruesome extension to the hitherto largest kidnap case in Afghanistan.

"They are safe and alive," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf was quoted as telling Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. The Afghan government, he said, "has given us hope for a peaceful settlement of the issue."

On Wednesday, the militia had reportedly given the Afghan government until 5:30 a.m. Thursday, Korean time, to free several imprisoned fighters in exchange for the release of the hostages.

As shock and grief pervaded nationwide following the killing of one of the hostages, Bae Hyung-kyu, Cheong Wa Dae dispatched chief presidential security advisor Baek Jong-chun to Kabul.

Baek was sent as the president's special envoy to help the crisis team working with the Afghan government for the release of the hostages.

Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Cheon Ho-seon explained that "the gravity of the situation called for the decision to send" Baek to Afghanistan.

Cheong Wa Dae confirmed that the Taliban is still holding 22 remaining hostages and that they were not suffering from any illness.

Cheong Wa Dae also ruled out the possibility of military action against the kidnappers.

"There is no change in the stance that without our government's consent, there will not be any military strategy to solve the issue," Cheon Ho-seon told reporters.

The body of Bae arrived later in the afternoon at the U.S. Bagram base where South Korean troops are stationed.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said his body will be brought back home via a commercial flight but officials could not confirm when it will arrive here.

The official also said that the government is trying to pass on medication and other amenities to the hostages through its contact channel in Afghanistan.

Pathan, the governor of Ghazni province was quoted as telling the Associated Press over the phone that authorities were in contact with kidnappers early Thursday trying to secure the Koreans' freedom. The militants gave a list of eight Taliban prisoners who they want released in exchange for eight Koreans, he said.

It is the biggest group of abducted foreigners in the six-year-long insurgency by the Taliban against President Hamid Karzai and international forces in Afghanistan.

Bae was among the 23 South Korean church volunteers kidnapped by the Taliban militants on Thursday last week. They were separated into three groups and were under watch by three different sects of Taliban forces.

Eight of them were originally set to be released and taken away by the group, who reportedly changed their mind upon witnessing a clamor of Afghan vehicles around the drop-off site on Wednesday afternoon.

The kidnappers have varying demands, making it difficult for the local negotiators to reach a consensus, according to sources.

The different political integrities among the three groups holding the hostages have also hindered the process, according to news reports.

"It is a very difficult situation where demands change, locations change and initiatives (among the Taliban groups) change constantly," a government official said on condition of anonymity.

Lights never went out at the Foreign Ministry building in central Seoul where government officials led by Foreign Minister Song Min-soon and the press waited for a breakthrough.

Grief swarmed the Saemmul Church -- the organizer for the captives' volunteer project -- as families and friends hung on to every single report coming from Afghanistan.

Conflicting news reports and announcements by the purported Taliban group have augmented the agony.

The killing of Bae was the third brutal death of a South Korean by Islamic militants.

In 2004, Kim Sun-il, a translator for a Korean military supply provider, was beheaded by insurgents in their political demand for the withdrawal of South Korean troops from Iraq.

In February this year, a South Korean soldier was killed in a bomb attack while on duty at the U.S. Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

AP reported that the militants shot Bae Hyung-kyu, who was sick and could not walk, quoting an unidentified Afghan police official.

South Korea has kept its contingent of military engineers and medics in the war-torn country since 2002. It is preparing for a full pullout at the end of this year.

The Taliban abductors reportedly are seeking an equal number of fighters be released, a demand the Afghan government wishes to avoid.

Afghanistan depends on overseas development assistance for 90 percent of its national budget. The United States, in particular, has supplied over $14 billion won worth of funds since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai became the first directly-elected president of Afghanistan in 2004 after leading the interim government supported by the United States.

The United States had criticized Karzai's authorization of the release of five Taliban prisoners in return for an Italian hostage in March earlier this year, citing such a deal would prompt more abductions.

The Taliban, basing its hard-liners in the southern part of Afghanistan, has been fighting an insurgency war against the government and coalition forces for the past six years.

The United States, in the meantime, was also in the dilemma of sticking to its principle of not making deals with terrorists but also having to help South Korea, one of its closest allies, get their hostages safely released.

Sources from Washington said the United States was holding closed-door countermeasures meetings on the crisis. The U.S. government, however, remains publicly mute on its specific position.

"At this point, I've seen the press reports, I've made inquiries on it, but I don't have any further information," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters yesterday.