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Taliban free 12 Korean hostages

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2007

QALA-E-KAZI, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban militants released 12 captives in a series of transfers yesterday, part of a deal with Seoul to free all 19 South Korean hostages.

The South Koreans, Christian aid workers who were kidnapped nearly six weeks ago, were turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross at three locations in central Afghanistan. None of the 12 spoke to reporters.

The remaining South Koreans will be freed over the next 48 hours, Taliban commanders have said.

The first three women freed came to Qala-e-Kazi in a single car, their heads covered with red and green shawls. Red Cross officials quickly took them to their vehicles and set out for the office of the Afghan Red Crescent in the town of Ghazni, witnesses said.

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

The Taliban apparently backed down on demands for a prisoner exchange.

A German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped July 18, the day before the South Koreans were abducted, are still being held.

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

"I don't think we made a big deviation from the international community's principle and practice," said South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun. "Other countries, when faced with this kind of problem, resolve the problem through contacts with kidnappers. I think there is no exception to this," he said.

The deal was made in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in Ghazni. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were facilitated by the Red Cross.

The Seoul government and relatives of the hostages have stressed that the kidnapped South Koreans were not missionaries, but were doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.

The Taliban has not said why the hostages were not released all at once. One factor behind the staggered release is thought to be logistics: The captives may have been held in different places far from one another in the mountainous area.

Security may be another reason. Freeing the hostages gradually allows time for most of the captors to escape while the group still holds some captives in case of operations by Afghan forces.

The Taliban 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 a gesture of good will.