12 South Korean Hostages Freed in Afghanistan

Islamabad, Pakistan - Twelve South Korean church volunteers were freed Wednesday after six weeks in Taliban captivity, officials in Afghanistan said, and the release of the remaining seven seemed imminent, apparently ending a hostage crisis that has gripped both nations.

According to the agreement struck on Tuesday, South Korea pledged to withdraw its 200 noncombat troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year -- a move it had previously said it would take -- and ban missionary work by Korean Christians in Afghanistan.

An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which helped facilitate the negotiations, said Taliban officials were living up to their end of the bargain.

"So far everything is going exactly to plan. We see no reason it should not continue that way," said Greg Muller, a Red Cross delegate in the central Afghan province of Ghazni. Three women were freed Wednesday morning, followed by four women and one man around noon, Muller said. As dusk approached, four more hostages were freed, the Associated Press reported. The hostages were to be taken from Ghazni to Kabul by Red Cross officials, then handed over to South Korean authorities.

The three women released in the morning arrived in the village of Qala-e-Kazi in a single car, the AP said, their heads covered with red and green shawls. They said nothing to reporters, who were asked by Red Cross representatives not to question them. In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee Yong identified the women as Ahn Hye Jin, Lee Jung Ran and Han Ji Young and said they did not appear to have any health problems, the AP said.

Muller said the hostages were being released in groups for logistical reasons. During their captivity, the hostages had been split up and held in various locations.

The Taliban initially took 23 South Koreans hostage, but two -- including a church pastor -- were killed by their captors. Two female hostages were freed Aug. 13.

The church members were abducted July 19 in Ghazni as they traveled by bus along the treacherous highway linking the capital, Kabul, with the southern city of Kandahar.

In Seoul on Tuesday night, families of the hostages reacted to news of the agreement with whoops of joy, hugging and tears.

"I would like to dance," Cho Myung Ho, mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo Yeon, told reporters after hearing of the deal.

Later, the outpouring of emotion and relief suddenly dissipated as many of the hostages' relatives appeared at a nationally televised news conference. They stood stoically in what appeared to be a show of collective remorse, and their spokesman apologized for a 41-day-long hostage drama that they acknowledged had upset the people and government of South Korea.

"We are very sorry to cause the nation so much concern and worry," said Cha Sung Min, whose 32-year-old sister, Cha Hye Jin, was one of the hostages.

South Korea appeared to give up little of substance in its negotiations. The government had already said it would be withdrawing its troops and has long sought to prevent missionaries from working in countries where they are unwanted.

The Taliban had alleged that the abducted Koreans were missionaries, but the Korean government and relatives of the hostages had insisted they were in Afghanistan doing aid work.

The abduction of the Koreans, coupled with other recent kidnappings, has ignited fears among foreigners in Afghanistan that the Taliban has developed a strategic plan to kidnap others. One German and four Afghans are still being held by the group.

The Taliban's demands had originally included the release of a Taliban prisoner for every Korean hostage. That put the Afghan government in an awkward position.

In the spring, the government had promised that it would no longer trade prisoners for hostages, following a particularly embarrassing exchange in March in which the government freed five Taliban fighters in return for an Italian journalist. The deal did not include an Afghan journalist who was also being held, and he was subsequently killed.

Cheon Ho Sun, a spokesman for the South Korean president, said the Taliban was eventually convinced that any prisoner exchange was far beyond the power of South Korea.

"The Taliban appear to understand our point," Cheon said. "It also seems that they were inconvenienced by holding as many as 19 people for such a long time."

In the past, the Taliban has accepted money for hostages, and a member of the Afghan parliament from Ghazni, Abul Jabar Shergaray, said the Taliban "had been asking for $1 million for every Korean."

Korean officials, however, denied that money was discussed as part of the deal.