The Taliban agreed Tuesday to free 19 South Korean church volunteers held hostage since July after the government in Seoul pledged to end all missionary work and keep a promise to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
International Red Cross vehicles carry the Taliban representatives to the Afghan Red Crescent Society of Gazni province, where the Taliban and Korean delegations will discuss for fate of the Korean hostages in the city of Ghazni province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 28, 2007. [AP]
The Taliban originally seized 23 South Koreans, but have since killed two of the hostages and released two others.
Direct talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean officials in central Afghanistan led to the agreement to end the hostage crisis, which had exposed the growing security problems facing Afghanistan.
"I would like to dance," Cho Myung-ho, mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo-yeon, said in South Korea after hearing news of the impending release. There was no word, though, on when it would take place.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said South Korean and Taliban delegates at face-to-face talks Tuesday in the central town of Ghazni had "reached an agreement" to free the captives.
South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said the deal had been reached "on the condition that South Korea withdraws troops by the end of year and South Korea suspends missionary work in Afghanistan," he said.
In reaching the deal, South Korea did not appear to commit to anything it did not already plan to do. Seoul has already said it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops by the end of the year and has also sought to prevent missionaries from causing trouble in countries where they were not wanted.
"We welcome the agreement to release 19 South Koreans," said Cheon.
The government and relatives of the hostages had insisted that the 19 kidnapped South Koreans were not missionaries, but were doing aid work.
The Taliban had initially demanded the withdrawal of South Korean troops from the country and the release of prisoners in exchange for freeing the hostages, but Afghan officials had ruled out any exchange, saying it would only encourage further kidnappings.
Taliban spokesmen have previously said they had no interest in a ransom payment.
Presidential spokesman Cheon said that he was informed by South Korean officials in Afghanistan that money was not discussed during negotiations with the Taliban, which were mediated by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Relatives of the South Koreans hostages held by the Taliban leave for the Qatari embassy to appeal for the safe return of the 19 remaining hostages, in Seongnam, south of Seoul, August 28, 2007. [Reuters]
"We are sorry to the public for causing concern, but we thank the government officials for the (impending) release," said Cha Sung-min, whose 32-year-old sister Cha Hye-jin was being held.
"Still, our hearts are broken as two died, so we convey our sympathy to the bereaved family members," said Cha, 31, who has served as a spokesman for the hostages' relatives.
Abductions have become a key insurgent tactic in recent months in trying to destabilize the country, targeting both Afghan officials and foreigners helping with reconstruction. A German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped a day before the South Koreans are still being held.
Violence in Afghanistan is running at its highest level since the Taliban ouster.
In eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked NATO troops helping build a bridge, killing three soldiers.
The suicide bomber approached the troops building a bridge in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing three soldiers and wounding six, NATO said. The alliance did not disclose the nationalities of the victims or the exact location of the blast. Most foreign troops in the east of the country are American.
US-led coalition and Afghan troops, meanwhile, killed up to 21 suspected Taliban militants in three separate clashes in southern Afghanistan, and a roadside blast killed four Afghan soldiers in the east, officials said.