HAZNI, Afghanistan, (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents said on Tuesday they would release 19 South Korean Christian volunteers they have been holding for nearly six weeks.
Earlier South Korea’s presidential Blue House issued a statement saying the agreement was on condition it withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within the year and stopped its nationals doing missionary work there.
Taliban representative, Qari Mohammad Bashir, confirmed a deal had been struck. But the Taliban demands did not include their main previous condition — the release of a group of militants held prisoner by the Afghan government. “By the end of 2007, they will withdraw their forces from Afghanistan,” Bashir told reporters, standing side by side with Korean negotiators in Ghazni province. “They will not send to Afghanistan those they sent for promulgation of … Christianity and will ban others from coming again for promulgation of Christianity,” he said. “All Korean nationals in any field working in Afghanistan will leave Afghanistan by the end of August,” he said. He said the Taliban would start releasing the hostages on Wednesday.
The announcement followed the resumption of negotiations, on hold for two weeks after the Korean side said it was unable to meet the kidnapper demands to release Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government in exchange for the hostages, most of them women. “The government will take every possible measure to make sure the hostages are safely back to their families’ arms as soon as possible without delay,” a South Korean presidential spokesman said, adding their release could take time.
The South Korean 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 travelling 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.
After the news, family members flocked to the church where relatives have been vigil since the start of the crisis. Many cried, hugged or prayed in between talking on their mobile phones to spread word to relatives and friends. “It was all possible due to the government’s help and we thank everybody for being there for us. The number one hero are the South Korean citizens. Thank you very much,” said Seo Jeung-bae, who had a son and daughter among the hostages. The church has come under criticism in South Korea for sending inexperienced Christian volunteers into the troubled Muslim region. South Korea is the world’s second biggest source of Christian missionaries, many of them working in known hot spots. “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 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 Ghazni province. 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. It came a day after Taliban fighters seized two German aid workers and their five Afghan colleagues from Wardak province, which, like Ghazni, lies to the southwest of Kabul. The Taliban have killed one German, but are still holding the other along with four Afghans. One Afghan managed to escape.
The Taliban are demanding the withdrawal of German troops serving under NATO’s command from Afghanistan for freeing the German. Berlin has ruled out the Taliban condition.
After coming under sharp criticism for releasing a group of Taliban prisoners in return for an Italian journalist in March, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government rejected the Taliban demand on the Korean hostages.