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The South Koreans have been held since July 19.

Two lawmakers - one of them a former Taliban member - and several influential elders have joined negotiations with the hardline militia to step up pressure for the release of 22 South Korean hostages, an official said Saturday.

A South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong Chun, was scheduled to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, an official from the South Korean Embassy in Kabul said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy.

The Taliban has demanded the release of insurgent prisoners in exchange for the South Koreans, who were captured on July 19. One of the original 23 captives was shot to death on Wednesday.

A former Taliban commander - Abdul Salaam Rocketi, now a member of Parliament - has joined the talks, said Shirin Mangal, spokesman of the Ghazni provincial governor. A second lawmaker and several respected leaders from around Qarabagh, the area in Ghazni province where the hostages were taken, have also joined, he said.

"Today we are hopeful to get a good result because more and more elders have gathered from Ghazni," said Qarabagh police chief Khwaja Mohammad. "I hope the Taliban will listen to these negotiations now because they are neutral people - elders from around Qarabagh district."

After the meeting on Saturday, the elders and clerics returned to their respective villages to ask other community leaders to join them in talks with the Taliban living in those areas, said Ghazni lawmaker Habib Rahman, who also attended the gathering.

"When the elders and clerics go to talk with the Taliban, they will explain once again that taking hostages is not acceptable in Islam and Afghan culture," Rahman said.

"My message to the Koreans, in particular to the families of these men and women being held by the Taliban, is this: We are optimistic. Don't worry. We are doing our best. ... Please be patient. A lot of people are involved today. Inshallah (if God wills it), they will not kill them," he said.

The South Koreans, including 18 women, were kidnapped while traveling by bus on the Kabul-Kandahar highway.