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UN's Ban Asks for Unclear "Utmost" to Free Koreans in Afghanistan, Amid Questions

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 23 -- Following the capture by the Taliban of 23 South Koreans on the road from Kabul to Kandahar, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Afghan president Hamid Karzai and "called on the Afghan Government to do its utmost to secure an early release of the abductees."

            What did he mean by going to the "utmost"? His spokesperson has been asked, without clarification.

            In Seoul, president Roh emphasized that South Korea's force of 200 in Afghanistan will leave by the end of the year.  Taliban spokesman Qari Muhammad Yousaf Ahmadi said that "we want the South Korean delegation to come and hold direct talks with the Taliban... If the government won't accept these conditions, then it's difficult for the Taliban to provide security for these hostages, to provide health facilities and food."

   Ahmadi said the Afghan government had denied the request to release 23 Taliban prisoners, and that the Korean Embassy in Kabul contacted the Taliban on Monday despite the Kabul government's stated opposition to direct contact between Seoul and the Taliban.

            In New York on Monday, Inner City Press asked Mr. Ban's Deputy Spokesperson:

Inner City Press: on Saturday, Ban Ki-moon spoke with the President of Afghanistan about these hostages.  The statement you put out was that he urged the Government to do its utmost to secure the early release of the abductees.  Can you say what his position is on this idea of the swapping of hostages for Taliban prisoners.  What more can you say and has he heard back since then from Afghanistan?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, we did issue a readout on the conversation he had with President Karzai, I believe it was early Saturday morning.  So you have that. In terms of details of any kind of efforts underway, I think that is not something we would say publicly for security reasons.  And your question is: Is he in touch?  Yes, I think through the UN Mission in Afghanistan, the Special Representative, Mr. Koenigs, is keeping him on top of the situation.

Inner City Press: It wasnít about logistics, it was more what his position is.  He's quoted as saying, 'do your utmost,' the question is, what is he urging President Karzai to do?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think he did not mean anything specifically, and as I said, I donít think that he would be going public with anything as sensitive as trying to secure release of hostages.

            It's been noted to Inner City Press that Mr. Ban, or at least his chief of communications, has taken credit for the release of British sailors taken hostage by Iran, and for the release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston -- and that's only in the UK! So some wonder as to the lengths Mr. Ban would go for these hostages.

    Specifically, Ban's communications chief wrote to the Guardian newspaper that "the secretary general's behind-the-scenes diplomacy has been decisive - as on other fronts. As a good Brit, Steele might ask himself how those British sailors held in Iran last spring came to be released. Or the kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston."  It was in that context that the July 23 question was asked -- if Team Ban selectively goes public on some hostage situations but not others. Or perhaps this one will be discussed in more detail later. We'll see.

Afghanistan, per UN, are these "good citizens"? (see below)

            In his July 16 press conference -- supposedly to be repeated at least monthly from now on -- Ban Ki-moon was asked to describe, about Afghanistan, all "measures to avoid any further civilian casualties." Ban said, "I know that it is extremely difficult, because insurgents and the Taliban are trying to hide behind the general population, so it may be very difficult in the course of military operations to differentiate who are good citizens -- innocent citizens -- and who are insurgents."

            That, and the subsequent hostage taking, are tragic situations, but as many point out, responses become precedents and create incentives for the future. Again, we'll see.   

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540