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N Korea rejects talks on South's POWs, abductees

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SEOUL, Feb 22 (Reuters) North Korea todeay rejected a proposal from the South to begin talks on the fate of South Korean prisoners of war and civilian abductees believed to be alive and held in the North.

Seoul also said it would ship 150,000 tonnes of fertiliser requested by the North and possibly give more later under South Korea's policy of no-strings humanitarian aid for those on the other side of the Demilitarised Zone bisecting the peninsula.

North Korea has reacted sensitively to the subject of POWs and post-war abductees, mostly fishermen taken at sea, and the North's position ''was exactly the same as in the past'', a South Korean Red Cross official was quoted as saying in pool reports.

North and South Korean Red Cross officials were meeting for a second day at the North's Mount Kumgang resort.

''We expressed the position that this is a matter that absolutely must be resolved, but the North is still putting forward a negative position,'' the official was quoted as saying.

North Korea said last year 10 South Koreans taken prisoner during the 1950-53 Korean War and 11 civilian abductees were still alive in the North. Many in the South, including the Red Cross, believe more than 540 POWs and some 480 civilians are held there alive.

South Korea also wants more and regular sessions of reunions for family members separated since the war, which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, meaning the two sides are technically still at war.

South Korea's new minister in charge of its ties with the North said he wanted more substance in dialogue and exchanges with the North, including progress on the POWs and abductee problem.

Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, however, told a radio programme he would not start associating its aid to the North with whether Pyongyang is more forthcoming on sensitive matters, including the missing people.

Lee's ministry said the government had decided to accept the North's request for 150,000 tonnes of fertiliser and would begin shipping it on February. 28.

North Korea was expected to ask for more, probably 300,000 tonnes, Lee said. No request was made at the talks in the North, the Red Cross official said.

REUTERS SB PM1501

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