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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Taleban rule the road in Ghazni
Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Ghazni, central Afghanistan

Thunder echoed around the wide valley announcing the arrival of a blinding sandstorm that rushed along the roads and down corridors between tall, impenetrable mud compounds.

Afghan soldiers in Ghazni, central Afghanistan, the area where the South Korean hostages were abducted
The hostages could be held in as many as 15 separate villages
The dust whipped up around the police - dozens of them, all heavily armed - who accompanied us to the place where the South Korean church volunteers had been kidnapped.

They tentatively showed us where they think the 21 survivors are being held.

In two weeks, two hostages have been killed and their bullet-ridden bodies recovered, but the rest appear to be still alive.

South Korean officials say a diplomat spoke to one of the hostages this weekend by telephone and medicines were dropped off for them in the desert.

The negotiations rumble slowly on and the government has vowed not to bow to demands for a prisoner exchange

For now there is little happening beyond talks about meetings to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion.

Taleban control

A large mud compound by the side of the road now has at least three Afghan flags flying. Gun positions are mounted on the high walls and there are dozens of police accompanying us for security.

An Afghan soldier behind a heavy machine gun
Despite their guns, the soldiers are afraid to stray far from the road
It was here in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni that a local bus, chartered by the Koreans, was stopped en route between Kabul and Kandahar and the foreign aid workers were taken away.

It is a two hour drive from the capital to this section of Route One, the main ring road that circles the Hindu Kush mountains that spread out like an open hand across central Afghanistan.

The road was resurfaced and secured by American troops after the Taleban were removed from power in 2001, and it was supposed to be a symbol of the new Afghanistan.

But the Taleban are back. They control the road and many of the villages by night and in places even by day. Their influence is spreading towards Kabul.

Vast area

"You see the mountains in the distance? That is where we think the hostages are being held," one of the local police commanders told me, pointing to a ridge on the horizon we could barely see through the sandstorm and because it was so far away.

Police and civilian vehicles on Route One, the main ring road
By night, the Taleban control the road and many of the villages
The police took us as far as they considered safe towards those mountains: just a couple of hundred metres off the main road.

Despite the heavy machine guns, rocket -propelled grenades and ability to call in Nato or Coalition forces for help, they are afraid of being attacked or being hit by a roadside bomb the Taleban might have left behind.

The police say the roads in and out of the area have been sealed off and there is no escape for the Taleban who are holding the South Koreans, but it is a vast area with 3,000 or more compounds - the huge, fort-like structures that are traditional Pashtun homesteads.

They could be in as many as 15 separate villages and so far the authorities have cautiously searched three, but there's still no sign of the Taleban, or their hostages.

Mixed messages

The hostages have been split up into groups and the negotiations have been made more confused and chaotic by disagreements within the Taleban factions holding them.

Afghan police vehicles by the roadside
Police say roads have been sealed off but the area concerned is vast
And also by the mixed approaches of the Afghan delegation and the South Korean authorities who are now trying to deal directly with the insurgents.

The truth has been hard to come by and the media has been fed inaccurate information as part of the brinkmanship of trying to make a deal.

The Afghan ministry of defence dropped leaflets warning local people to leave for their own safety, and initially did not object to reports that a military operation was being launched to rescue the hostages.

But the area is vast and even with international help a rescue attempt would be incredibly risky both for those carrying it out and for the 21 South Koreans, most of whom are women.

For now, the emphasis is on talking and trying to bring this to an end without bloodshed, and with neither side losing face or being seen to give in.

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