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Taliban says captive American professor's health is failing

Kevin King, 60, was seized at gunpoint along with Australian Timothy Weeks, 48, in their vehicle outside the American University of Afghanistan in August 2016.

KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban insurgents said Monday that an American professor abducted more than a year ago in Afghanistan is gravely ill and needs urgent care. They called on the U.S. government to accede to their demands in exchange for releasing him and a colleague.

Kevin King, 60, was seized at gunpoint along with Australian Timothy Weeks, 48, in their vehicle outside the American University of Afghanistan here in August 2016. The pair next appeared in a video in January, apparently unharmed but tearfully asking President Trump to secure their release by agreeing to free imprisoned militants.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that the group had "periodically tried to treat and cure" King but that "since we are facing a war situation, we do not really have access to health facilities to provide him complete treatment."

In an email to members of the media, Mujahid said that King was suffering from serious heart disease, kidney problems and swollen feet and that the group would hold the U.S. government responsible if anything happened to him. The spokesman said the Taliban has presented the United States with demands it wants met in return for the pair's release, but he did not reveal what the demands were or how they had been communicated.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said U.S. officials were aware of the Taliban statement. On Monday afternoon, the embassy called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of King and all other hostages.

Calling the Taliban's actions "appalling," the embassy said in a statement that the U.S. government "will never stop trying to recover [King and Weeks] and other Americans held by criminal and terrorist networks around the world." It made no mention of any Taliban demands or negotiations.

American University officials also urged the Taliban to immediately release both faculty members unharmed. The men are "innocent victims of a criminal abduction" who came "to teach Afghan youth and contribute to building a peaceful Afghanistan," the university said. "They have done no harm to anyone."

A spokeswoman for the university, Zubaida Akbar, said in a statement that everyone connected with the institution was "saddened and disturbed" by the Taliban message about King's deteriorating health.

Addressing King directly, the statement said: "Kevin, we are immensely sad to hear about your health situation. Please know that you and Tim remain in our thoughts and prayers. We will not stop trying to work for your release. We urge your kidnappers to release you at once."

King's condition has "exponentially worsened, his feet have begun swelling, he frequently loses consciousness and his health is deteriorating rapidly," the Taliban statement said.

"Since the American side does not care about the life and death of its nationals, hence we are warning them to accept the demands of the Islamic Emirate presented for the freedom of these two detainees and secure their release," it said.

"However, if they insist on delaying this matter and the illness of Kevin King becomes incurable or he loses his life, the Islamic Emirate will not be held responsible," the Taliban said.

One month after King and Weeks were abducted, the Pentagon said it had mounted an unsuccessful nighttime mission to recover them, but it did not say where. Officials said a team of Navy SEALs made two attempts to raid a compound where the hostages were thought to be held. In the second attempt, a firefight erupted in which seven militants were killed, but the hostages were not found, officials said.

After the video appearance in January, the pair were again seen in a video in June appealing to Trump for help. The Taliban has reportedly demanded the release of its fighters being held in Afghanistan, both at the U.S.-run Bagram air base and at the Afghan-operated Pul-i-Charkhi prison outside Kabul.

In the second video, King, wearing a long beard, says: "My captors treat me well. They treat me and my colleague Tim Weeks as their guests, but every prisoner's final wish is to get freedom from prison." Weeks urged Australian officials to raise the issue in Parliament.

Security analysts have said that the pair are probably being held by the Haqqani network, a hard-line Taliban faction that has orchestrated numerous deadly attacks in Afghanistan. The Trump administration has repeatedly accused Pakistan of sheltering Haqqani militants, a charge Pakistan has denied.

The Haqqanis, long based in the rugged border region, also reportedly engineered several abductions of foreign nationals, including that of an American woman, Caitlan Coleman, and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle. The couple, kidnapped in 2012 while hiking in Afghanistan, were rescued with their three children several weeks ago in what Pakistan described as a military operation just inside its border.

After their release, Boyle said his wife was raped by a guard and that an infant daughter was murdered. The Taliban denied the allegations, saying she lost the child in a miscarriage.