Afghanistan’s Taliban said Saturday it has freed two women among 21 South Korean hostages captured more than three weeks ago by the hardline militia.
Two spokesman for the insurgents said both women were ill and had been freed unconditionally as a “gesture of goodwill,” just hours after the conclusion of face-to-face talks between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation.
Neither Afghan nor South Korean officials would immediately confirm any hostage release.
“Our leadership council decided to free unconditionally and as a gesture of goodwill two women hostages who are sick,” said the main Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi.
Ahmadi said they might not yet have arrived at the point where they would be handed over to authorities “due to some transportation difficulty.”
“But what I can tell you is the leadership council has said they must be freed, so they’re freed,” he said.
Taliban representatives and the South Koreans met in the southern town of Ghazni, 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of the capital Kabul.
The hardline rebels abducted 23 Koreans on July 19. They later shot dead two of the Christian aid workers and had threatened to murder more if demands for the release of Taliban prisoners from jail were not met.
Another Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, confirmed the decision to free the women, saying their release would “show that we’re honest in our talks and expect the government to be honest and free our prisoners”.
The police chief of Ghazni, Alishah Ahmadzai, said earlier there had been an agreement to free “some” of the hostages, but other officials would not confirm this.
The two Taliban representatives who were party to the talks said Saturday they were “optimistic” but reiterated their prisoner-swap demand, a condition the government has repeatedly rejected.
“The hostages will be freed if the government accepts our demands to free some prisoners,” one of the negotiators, Qari Bashir, said outside the offices of the Afghan Red Crescent Society where the talks were held.
“If they accept our demands, maybe they’ll be freed today or tomorrow,” he said at what amounted to the Taliban’s first press conference in several years.
The Taliban, who have been waging an insurgency since being toppled from government in 2001, usually speak to reporters through spokesmen who make telephone contact from undisclosed locations.
With talks with the Afghan government apparently deadlocked over the demand for a prisoner exchange, direct negotiations between the rebels and the South Korean team have been seen as one of the last hopes for the hostages’ release.
The 23 South Korean aid workers were abducted in Ghazni province while travelling on a key highway which many foreigners consider a no-go area because of a general decline in security.
The Taliban are also linked to a militant group holding a German engineer and four Afghans captured in Wardak province near Kabul the day before the abduction of the South Koreans.
The militants have demanded a prisoner exchange for the 62-year-old engineer, who was captured with another German who was shot dead days later.
The hardliners were in government between 1996 and 2001, when they were driven out by a US-led coalition for sheltering Al-Qaeda — blamed for the 9/11 attacks that year.