GHAZNI, Afghanistan - Two women among the 23 South Koreans kidnapped by the Taliban in mid-July were freed Monday on a rural Afghan roadside and then driven to a U.S. base, the first significant breakthrough in a hostage crisis now more than three weeks old.
Tow of the released South Korean hostages are seen after they were released by Taliabn in Ghazni province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday, Aug. 13, 2007. [AP]
The two women, who broke into tears after seeing the international Red Cross officials there to take custody of them, got out of a dark gray Toyota Corolla driven by an Afghan elder and into one of two waiting Red Cross SUVs. The women said nothing to reporters alerted to the handoff location five miles southeast of Ghazni city by a Taliban spokesman.
Wearing scarves on their heads, khaki trousers and traditional Afghan knee-length shirts, the women were driven to the U.S. base in Ghazni city, where American soldiers searched them and then let them enter. Both carried bags.
They were brought to the arranged meeting point on the side of a road in rural Ghazni province by an Afghan named Haji Zahir, who also got into the Red Cross vehicle with the freed hostages.
The Taliban decided to release these two "for the sake of good relations between the Korean people and the Taliban," said Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the insurgent group.
"We are expecting the Korean people and government to force the Kabul administration and the U.S. to take a step toward releasing Taliban prisoners," Ahmadi said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Ghazni Gov. Marajudin Pathan ruled out a Taliban prisoner swap.
"Our position is the same, we are not releasing (any Taliban prisoners)," Pathan told reporters.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry identified the freed hostages as Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Ji-na. Previous media reports said they were 37 and 32 years old, respectively.
Two male captives were executed by gunfire in late July. Fourteen women and five men are still being held.
The Taliban have been demanding the release of 21 militant prisoners being held in jails by the Afghan government and U.S. military at the base at Bagram. The government has said it won't release any prisoners out of fear that kidnapping could become an industry in Afghanistan.
The South Korean government confirmed the release of the two hostages, and said they were under protection in a safe location. Seoul called for the other captives to also be freed.
"We urge the kidnappers to release our people and we will make efforts for the safety and release of South Koreans," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong.
The women, who the Taliban have said are ill, were among a group of 23 South Koreans kidnapped by militants on July 19.
The local governor has suggested in the past that the hostage standoff could be solved with a ransom payment.
The release comes after face-to-face talks Friday and Saturday in Ghazni between two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials.
Ahmadi said that while talks continue, the remaining hostages will be safe.
"During these negotiations, there will no threats to the other Korean hostages. We are waiting for the result of these negotiations. After the negotiations, the Taliban leadership will make a decision about these 19 Korean hostages," he said.
Separately, a suicide bomber targeted a U.S.-led coalition convoy in eastern Afghanistan.
The blast in Khost province killed the bomber, said Gen. Mohammad Ayub, the provincial police chief. There were no immediate reports of casualties among the U.S. forces.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said they were aware of a car bomb in the east but had no further details.
In the south, Afghan police and army soldiers thwarted a planned militant ambush at the district chief's compound, and the ensuing clash left nine militants dead, said provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqib.
During a cleanup operation after the battle, a roadside bomb hit a police vehicle in the same district, killing five officers and wounding two, Saqib said.
Violence in Afghanistan has risen sharply during the last two months. More than 3,700 people, mostly militants, have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of casualty figures provided by Western and Afghan officials.