Final South Korean hostages freed

Janda, Afghanistan - Taliban militants on Thursday released the final seven South Korean captives they had been holding, bringing an end to a six-week hostage drama, witnesses said.

The captives were handed over to Reto Stocker, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, in two stages on a road in Ghazni province in central part of the country, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.

Two men and two women were released first. Hours later, two women and one man who were covered in dust walked out of the desert, accompanied by three armed men, and also were turned over to waiting ICRC officials a few miles from the earlier site.

None of the freed South Koreans made any comments.

The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 South Koreans as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on July 19. In late July, the militants killed two male hostages, and they released two women earlier this month as gesture of goodwill. Another 12 were freed Wednesday.

Under the terms of a deal reached Tuesday, South Korea reaffirmed a pledge it made before the hostage crisis began to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Seoul also said it would prevent South Korean Christian missionaries from working in the staunchly Muslim country, something it had already promised to do.

The Taliban could emerge from the hostage-taking with enhanced political legitimacy for negotiating successfully with a foreign government.

South Korea and the Taliban have said no money changed hands as part of the deal.

An Indonesian government official who took part in the negotiations Tuesday between three South Korean officials and two Taliban commanders where the deal was struck said money was not brought up.

"From what I saw and from what I heard in the talks, it was not an issue," Heru Wicaksono told the AP.

Wicaksono, a high-ranking official at the Indonesian Embassy in Kabul, said the Taliban were motivated by "humanitarian feelings" to free the captives.

The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which took place in Ghazni and were facilitated by the ICRC.

Wicaksono was an observer at the talks, chosen by both sides because Indonesia is a large Muslim country.

South Korea's government, which has been under intense domestic pressure to bring the hostages home safely, said it had tried to adhere to international principles while putting priority on saving the captives.

Afghan Commerce Minister Amin Farhang criticized the deal.

"One has to say that this release under these conditions will make our difficulties in Afghanistan even bigger," he told Germany's Bayerischer Rundfunk radio. "We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan."