KABUL, Afghanistan -- A man identifying himself as a Taliban spokesman said the insurgents had killed two German and five Afghan captives yesterday, adding that they also intended to kill 23 South Korean captives if their demand for the release of an equal number of Taliban prisoners was not met within 24 hours.
The claim that seven hostages were dead could not be verified, and Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry denied the report, insisting that one of the German hostages had died of a heart attack and that the other was still alive.
"Our efforts at negotiations are ongoing, and the government will use every legal means available to get the remaining hostage released," said Sultan Ahmad Baheen, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, one of several people who claim to speak for the Taliban, announced early in the afternoon that the two German captives had been killed because Berlin had not heeded a deadline for announcing the removal of its 3,000 troops from Afghanistan.
The unidentified hostages, described in the German news media as engineers, were kidnapped Wednesday with five Afghan colleagues as they traveled on a main highway southwest of the capital.
Though Ahmadi offered no proof of his claim, he said that the first German had been executed at 12:05 p.m. and the second at 1:20 p.m. The five Afghans, he said, were killed at 2 p.m.
"We are holding 23 South Koreans, and 18 of them are women," he said, referring to a group of Christian volunteers whose bus was hijacked at gunpoint Thursday in Ghazni province. "We know that these people have come here to convert our good Muslims away from Islam. If they were not women, we would have killed them on the spot."
German officials, like their Afghan counterparts in Kabul, were skeptical of Ahmadi's claims.
For days, officials in Berlin have been dealing with contradictory statements from the Taliban. "One person said, 'We don't have any German hostages,'" said Amelie Utz, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. "The other said, 'We have German hostages, and we're going to kill them.'"
Still, she said, Germany is taking the reports of the killings seriously. Chancellor Angela Merkel postponed an interview with the state broadcaster, ARD, yesterday, citing the situation in Afghanistan.
German officials are increasingly concerned that their citizens, especially those working in Afghanistan, could be the targets of attacks because of the nation's participation in the NATO-led military force.
The interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said last month that Germany faced a heightened threat of terrorism because of its presence in Afghanistan. In October, the parliament is scheduled to vote on extending the mandate of its 3,000 troops. If the hostages have indeed been murdered, that would intensify an already-tense debate over Germany's continued participation.
The executions, if confirmed, would almost certainly make the situation more dire for the South Korean church group.
Ahmadi, when contacted by journalists Friday, first said the South Koreans would be killed if their government did not announce the removal of its 210 troops in Afghanistan by noon yesterday. But that deadline came and went without further word.
The South Korean troops, who largely do medical assistance and reconstruction work, were already scheduled to leave the country at the end of the year.
"Under the existing plan, we only have several months to go before the troops complete their mission and pull out," South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told reporters yesterday. "They can't pick up and leave immediately. They move as dictated by the military plan."
In a televised plea yesterday, Roh called for the release of the hostages. "Under any circumstances, precious lives must not be lost. The Korean government is prepared to make its utmost effort with the relevant parties to secure the speedy release of the Korean citizens," he said.
Roh described the hostages as humanitarian workers. "We understand the kidnapped South Koreans have been doing medical volunteer services," he said.