Taliban Begins to Free South Korean Hostages

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 30, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 29 -- The Taliban on Wednesday began making good on a promise to release 19 South Koreans who have been held captive for a month and a half, freeing 12 and promising to turn over the rest in coming days.

The Koreans, church volunteers who had been traveling on a bus down a notoriously dangerous highway in Afghanistan when they were abducted July 19, were handed over in small groups throughout the day to representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross reported that the freed hostages -- 10 women and two men -- "appeared to be in good physical health."

"So far, everything is going exactly to plan. We see no reason it should not continue that way," said Greg Muller, a delegate for the Red Cross, which facilitated negotiations that resulted in a deal Tuesday.

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

According to the agreement, the South Korean government promised to withdraw its 200 noncombat troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, which it had decided to do before the hostage crisis began. The government also said it would ban South Korean missionaries from traveling to Afghanistan.

The Taliban had kidnapped 23 South Koreans, the largest group of foreign hostages it has taken since the start of its insurgency in 2001. The captors killed two of the hostages, including a church pastor, and freed two others.

The Taliban insisted the hostages were missionaries, but the South Korean government and relatives said they were in Afghanistan doing aid work. The group was kidnapped in the central Afghan province of Ghazni as it traveled from the capital, Kabul, to the southern city of Kandahar.

Abdullah, a top Taliban commander who helped orchestrate the kidnapping, said in a telephone interview that the episode had been a strategic victory. "We showed to the world that the United States is not taking care of its allies in the so-called war on terror," he said. "We will continue such a strategy to isolate the U.S. and its installed government in Kabul."

He called kidnapping "a good and cost-effective strategy for putting pressure on the enemy."

The Taliban initially demanded the release of prisoners but later dropped that request. The Afghan government said it would not engage in any more prisoner exchanges after a deal in the spring involving the release of an Italian reporter backfired. This time, Afghan authorities stayed out of the talks and allowed South Korean officials to negotiate directly with the Taliban.

"The Taliban found out that release of prisoners is not in the hands of the Koreans. That's why they gave up that demand," said Mohammad Zahir Kharuti, a tribal elder who mediated the talks.

While previous hostages in Afghanistan have been exchanged for cash, Kharuti said the Taliban never demanded money this time.

When the time to release the hostages came Wednesday, Kharuti said, the Taliban recorded the event with mobile-phone video cameras. The Taliban also ordered the women to cover their heads with green and red shawls.

After being released to the Red Cross, the freed hostages were turned over to South Korean authorities and were expected to return home soon.

Special correspondents Javed Hamdard in Kabul and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.


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