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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 06:21 GMT 07:21 UK
S Korea agonises over hostages
By Daniel Griffiths
BBC News, Seoul

It is the rainy season in South Korea. Dark skies and long days of torrential rain are common in July and August.

Pro-hostage rally outside the US Embassy in Seoul, 6 August
Protesters have picketed the US embassy in Seoul to demand help

The gloomy weather seems to reflect the mood of many South Koreans as they wait to hear the fate of the 21 hostages still being held by the Taleban in Afghanistan.

The captives' plight has become a national obsession. It is the top story on television and radio and on the front pages of the newspapers.

There is widespread sympathy for the families of those who have been kidnapped.

That is exacerbated by the anguished appeals from the parents. At a memorial service for one of the dead hostages, a mother of one of the hostages made a desperate plea.

"Please save our children immediately," said Kim Taek-kyoung. "Please save them quickly."

Hands tied

But there is also anger about what the South Koreans were doing in a conflict zone like Afghanistan in the first place.

19 July: 23 South Korean Christian aid workers seized on bus in Ghazni province
26 July: Body of hostage Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu is found
31 July: Second hostage Shim Sung-min, 29, found shot dead

They were working for a Christian missionary organisation, one of many that have grown up in South Korea in recent years.

It is thought that one quarter to one fifth of all South Koreans are Christians.

The organisation's leader, Park Eun-jo, said he was working hard for the hostages' release.

"We will try our best to clear up this crisis and comfort the families as we hope to resolve this crisis here in Korea and in Afghanistan," he said.

This is a difficult situation for the South Korean government. It cannot directly control events on the ground in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has already said it does not want to give in to Taleban demands to swap the hostages for prisoners held in Afghan jails.

Kabul worries that it might lead to more kidnappings.

So Seoul's room for manoeuvre is limited.

"Through our contacts, our foremost goal is to make it clear that there is a limit as to what our government can do to meet their demands of releasing the prisoners," said official South Korean spokesman Cheon Ho-seon.

American angle

Seoul does not want a military operation to free the hostages, fearing more loss of life.

Shim Jin-pyo, fathered of dead hostage Shim Sung-min, weeps at his funeral in Sungnam, S Korea, on 4 August
The father of slain hostage Shim Sung-min weeps at his funeral

Instead, politicians here in Seoul have mounted a diplomatic offensive in an attempt to influence the outcome of the crisis.

Eight senior South Korean legislators flew to Washington last week to lobby for support.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon has also had meetings with a top official at the US state department.

And a delegation, including the South Korean ambassador to Kabul, has been in negotiations with the Taleban.

There is a growing belief both among some politicians and ordinary South Koreans that the US has a crucial role to play in finding a resolution to the stand-off.

Some think that the current hostage crisis is a direct result of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's decision to send South Korean troops to help US lead forces in Afghanistan.

They argue that Seoul should commit to withdrawing its small force of just over 200 troops.

But the reality is that no-one knows how or when this stand-off might end.

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