SKorea counts cost as hostage crisis nears end

SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea began to count the diplomatic and human cost Thursday of a six-week hostage ordeal as it awaited the release of the last seven aid workers kidnapped by Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents.The church that sent the Christian volunteers on a bus trip across war-torn southern Afghanistan said the government has told it to help foot the bill for the rescue.

The father of one of two hostages shot dead earlier in the crisis accused church leaders of being “reckless,” while newspapers said the government would suffer diplomatic damage for negotiating directly with the extremists.

The Taliban on Wednesday freed 12 of their 19 captives, while one of their commanders said the other seven would be released Thursday.

It followed a pledge by South Korean government representatives to withdraw its military units from Afghanistan and ban missionaries from going there.

The insurgents captured 23 Christian aid workers on July 19. Two men were killed last month and two women were freed earlier this month.

The father of victim Shim Sung-Min welcomed the releases but said that it revived the pain he feels for his 29-year-old son.

Shim Chin-Pyo slammed the Saem-Mul Presbyterian church for organising the ill-fated trip. “I wonder why the church was so reckless in taking them to the dangerous country,” he told AFP.

“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, moving in such a conspicuous manner. They travelled on a dangerous road at night in a bus.”

A church official, Kwon Hyuk-Soo, said it would pay for air tickets for returning hostages and for the cost of bringing back the bodies of the victims, following a foreign ministry demand.

“Currently, we are focusing on bringing all those released home,” an unidentified government official told Yonhap news agency.

“But when they return home safe, we have to go over what caused the incident and who was responsible. We also have to discuss the settlement of the costs to the government.”

Newspapers united in criticising the Saem-Mul church, saying the government had no choice but to negotiate directly with the Taliban.

JoongAng Ilbo, in a commentary, said the Taliban earned “enormous political benefits” through the negotiations while South Korea’s image was damaged.

The Korea Times described the hostage agreement as “a major diplomatic achievement” for the Seoul government but one which came at a price.

“Although the Taliban did not achieve their stubborn demands for a prisoner swap, they certainly obtained a lot in terms of political credibility through their direct negotiations with a foreign government in their ‘territory’,” an editorial said.

The case might impair Korea’s international status in the future, it said.

JoongAng Ilbo, in a separate editorial, said the government, faced with a desperate situation, had no choice but to negotiate.

“But that made Korea a country which has broken an important rule when the world is at war against terrorism,” it said.

The paper said careless behavior by the church group — which had posed for pictures before departure in front of an airport notice warning against travel to Afghanistan — had “put a heavy burden” on their country.

The conservative Chosun Ilbo said that, although there was no choice, the government had violated international rules.

The Korea Herald praised government officials but added: “Korea will not be able to escape international censure for negotiating with terrorists.”

In Washington, the US State Department dismissed suggestions the deal would give the Taliban political legitimacy, while the Seoul government has denied setting a bad international precedent.

“It is a state’s obligation to cope flexibly with a hostage situation within the scope of international society’s principles and customs,” said presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-Seon.

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