GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN, August 1, 2007— -- A military operation to rescue the remaining 21 Korean hostages held by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan began on Wednesday, hours after aTaliban deadline expired, a provincial official said.
"The operation has started," said Khowja Seddiqi, thedistrict chief of Ghazni's Qarabagh district, where the Talibankidnapped 23 Korean Christian volunteers nearly two weeks ago.
He did not give more details or say which forces wereinvolved. Any attempt to rescue the hostages is fraught with risk, asthe kidnappers have split the 18 women and three men into smallgroups and are holding them in different locations across themainly flat terrain.
The Taliban could not be immediately be contacted, butspokesmen for the radical Islamist movement have repeatedlysaid any use of force would jeopardise the lives of thehostages.
Earlier the army had dropped leaflets warning civilians ofan assault.
"The national army has dropped leaflets from helicopterstelling people in several districts to evacuate their housesbecause it wants to launch an operation," said Khowja Seddiqi,district chief of Qarabagh, in Ghazni province.
The Taliban have killed two male hostages after the Afghangovernment refused to bow to rebel demands to free jailedinsurgents.
The defence ministry said earlier that the Afghan NationalArmy had launched an operation in Ghazni, but insisted it was"routine" and was not linked with the kidnapping.
Earlier in the day, a Taliban spokesman said the group wasexpecting to hear from Afghan mediators over its demand for thegovernment to release rebel prisoners, but insisted some of thehostages would be killed if that demand was not met by 0730GMT. The Afghan government has said that giving in to rebeldemands would only encourage more kidnapping.