GHAZNI, Afghanistan (AFP) – The Taliban freed 12 of their 19 South Korean captives on Wednesday as the wrenching six-week hostage crisis in Afghanistan neared resolution.The Islamic extremist movement handed over 10 women and two men to tribal elders in three separate releases several hours apart outside the central town of Ghazni. The aid workers were then driven to safety in Red Cross vehicles.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representative Greg Muller confirmed to AFP that 12 hostages had been released and taken to the Red Crescent Society offices in Ghazni, 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of Kabul.
“They seem after six weeks in detention very much relieved which is a natural reaction after an extremely stressful experience,” Muller said.
“But physically they seem in good shape,” he added.
Many of the freed women were wearing colourful headscarves and some appeared to be in tears. They covered their faces as they were bundled into Red Cross vehicles. A bearded male hostage grinned broadly.
The freed hostages were among 23 Christian aid workers kidnapped by Taliban militants on July 19. Two male captives were executed by their captors and two female hostages were freed earlier this month.
The South Korean embassy in Kabul said the freed hostages were likely to be flown to the US military base at Bagram, north of Kabul, before leaving Afghanistan “as soon as possible.”
Wednesday’s releases came a day after the Taliban announced it would free all the hostages in the wake of South Korea’s pledge to withdraw its military force from Afghanistan and ban missionary groups from the country.
The agreement came in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in Ghazni. The Taliban said the remaining hostages would likely be freed on Thursday.
The United States welcomed the release, but refrained comment on whether the agreement for their freedom set a dangerous precedent.
“We are very glad that those who have been released so far will be able to return home to their families,” said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman.
Amid speculation over whether a ransom was paid, both the Taliban and the South Korean government denied there was any secret deal.
“I strongly deny this. It’s not true that money was involved,” Taliban commander Qari Mohammad Bashir said.
The hostage-takers said Tuesday it would take several days to free all the captives as they were in different areas.
News of the deal triggered tears of relief from their relatives who have been watching and praying for their lives since they were seized on a bus travelling from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar.
“I am extremely happy. I want to see them and hug them hard now,” said Seo Jeung-Bae, 57, whose son and daughter are among those being held.
“I had not doubted for one moment that the Taliban would return my children some day as the Taliban are also human beings and have their own families,” he told AFP at the suburban Seoul church where the Christian group was based.
But the father of Shim Sung-Min, one of the two hostages killed earlier welcomed the release of other captives but said it revives the pain he feels for his son.
Shim Chin-Pyo also strongly criticised the Seoul church which had organised the ill-fated aid trip.
“This is very good news not only for the families of the hostages but for the whole country and the government as well. But personally, it brings me fresh sadness over my lost son,” Shim Chin-Pyo told AFP.
“I don’t know why my son was there and why he was singled out to be killed even through he was just an ordinary fellow among the group,” said Shim, a member of the local assembly in the southern town of Goseong.
The insurgents killed Shim and Pastor Hyung-Kyu in July to press their demands to swap the Koreans for jailed Taliban members, but the Afghan government rejected any such swap.
The South Korean government promised to pull out its 200 troops in medical and engineering units from Afghanistan by the end of the year — something it was already planning to do.
It also promised to stop missionary activities by its Christian groups in Islamic Afghanistan — again, the government has already imposed a ban on all unauthorised travel to the war-torn nation.
The insurgents apparently accepted assurances by Seoul that it was powerless to influence the Kabul government to release prisoners, presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-Seon said in Seoul.
The kidnappings are among a series of incidents blamed on the Taliban, who are waging a bloody insurgency against the Kabul government and its coalition allies that has spiralled in intensity over the past year.
The Taliban, linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, are also holding a German engineer who was kidnapped a day before the South Koreans.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday her government was doing “its utmost” to free him and four Afghans held with him.