Christian volunteer slain

Kabul, Afghanistan - THE fate of 22 South Korean Christian volunteers kidnapped by the Taliban hung in the balance last night after rebels killed the group's leader.

His bullet-riddled body was dumped near where the group was seized.

Taliban last night said the rest of the hostages were still alive, despite an overnight deadline to start killing them if the Afghan Government did not agree to exchange the group for eight imprisoned rebels.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry identified the victim as Bae Hyung-kyu, a founding member of the Saemmul Church, which sent the volunteers to Afghanistan.

They were to provide free medical services in the war-torn nation.

Mr Bae, killed on his 42nd birthday, co-founded the church in 1998 and has a young daughter.

He had done volunteer work in Bangladesh in April and planned to visit Africa to help the poor after the Afghanistan mission.

His death was a shattering blow to his elderly parents.

Bae Ho-jung, 72, rested his head on a Bible on hearing official confirmation of his son's death while praying at a church in Jeju.

"I want to believe that it is a wrong report. I want to pray today," he had said earlier before his glimmer of hope faded.

The South Korean Government said Baek Jong-chun, chief presidential secretary for foreign and security policy, would head to Afghanistan as a special presidential envoy.

"The Government and the people of South Korea condemn the kidnapping of innocent civilians and the atrocity of harming a human life," Mr Baek said.

"Harming innocent civilians can never be justified and we will never forgive this kind of inhumane act," the security chief said in a nationally televised statement.

The Taliban accused the Government and South Korean negotiators of failing to act in good faith after Kabul rejected the demand for eight named rebels to be freed from prison.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to swap prisoners for hostages after being criticised at home and abroad for releasing five Taliban members from jail in March in exchange for an Italian reporter.