Taliban to free all 19 hostages, South Korea says

Seoul, South Korea - Taliban insurgents will release 19 South Korean Christian volunteers they have been holding for nearly six weeks in Afghanistan, South Korea's presidential Blue House said on Tuesday.

But a Taliban spokesman declined to comment on the announcement, saying only that negotiations were successful and the governor of the Afghan province where the hostages were seized said talks were still going on.

"The Taliban agreed to free the 19 South Korean hostages on the condition that South Korea withdraws its troops within this year and halt missionary activities," the Blue House statement said.

The announcement followed the resumption of negotiations, on hold for two weeks after the Korean side said it was unable to meet the kidnappers' chief demand to release Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government in exchange for the hostages, most of them women.

The government had in any case decided before the hostage crisis to pull out its small contingent of engineers and medical staff from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

And since the hostages were taken it has banned its nationals from traveling to the war-torn country.

"The families are rejoicing at the news. They are busy calling other family members and friends at the moment to pass the news," Bang Yong-kyun, pastor at Saemmul Church outside Seoul, told Reuters.


The hostages are members of the church which has come under criticism in South Korea for sending inexperienced Christian volunteers into the troubled Muslim region.

"We are very sorry to have caused any problems to the country over the kidnappings," a spokesman for the hostages' families, Cha Sung-min, said in nationally broadcast comments after the government announcement.

"We can't show enough how sorry we are that we can't share this happy news with the other victims' families," he added, a reference to the two male hostages who were killed by their captors early on in the crisis.

The Taliban later released another two women hostages as a gesture of goodwill during the first round of talks.

The insurgent group seized 23 Korean Christian volunteers on July 19 from a bus in the Afghan Ghazni province.

A South Korean presidential spokesman said it could take some time before the actual release.

"The government will do every possible measure to make sure the hostages are safely back to their families' arms as soon as possible without delay."

But Merajuddin Pattan, governor of Ghazni told Reuters that it was not over yet.

"The talks are still going on. So far the issue has not been resolved. the talks are (going on) face to face."

The kidnapping of the Koreans is the largest case of abductions in the resurgent Taliban's campaign since U.S.-led troops toppled the group from power in 2001.

The Afghan government had not ruled out using force to free the hostages, should the talks between the Korean and Taliban negotiators fail.

But the Taliban, who have been keeping the hostages in small groups, warned against any use of force, saying that would jeopardize the lives of the captives.