Taliban militants on Wednesday released 12 of 19 South Korean captives they promised to free under a deal struck with the South Korean government to resolve a nearly six-week hostage crisis.
The deal, reached in direct talks Tuesday between South Korean diplomats and the Taliban, was criticized by one Afghan government minister amid concerns it could embolden the insurgents at a time of rising violence in the country.
The hostages were released into the care of officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross at three separate locations in central Afghanistan, according to an Associated Press reporter on the scene.
The first group of three women were released in the village of Qala-e-Kazi. Several hours later, four women and one man were released in a desert close to Shah Baz. As dusk approached, four more hostages were freed on a main road about 30 miles from Ghazni, said the reporter, who witnessed all three handovers.
None of the freed hostages spoke to reporters.
The first three women freed arrived in Qala-E-Kazi in a single car, their heads covered with red and green shawls. Red Cross officials quickly took them to their vehicles before leaving for the office of the Afghan Red Crescent in Ghazni, witnesses said.
In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong said the three, whom he identified as Ahn Hye-jin, Lee Jung-ran and Han Ji-young, did not appear to have any health problems.
To secure the release of the church workers, 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 country, something it had already promised to do.
The Taliban apparently backed down on earlier demands for a prisoner exchange. But the militant group, which killed two South Korean hostages last month, could emerge with enhanced political legitimacy for negotiating successfully with a foreign government and could also benefit from the international attention it gained.
South Korea’s decision to hold face-to-face negotiations with the militants is in sharp contrast to the U.S. government’s refusal to talk to the Taliban.
An Afghan government minister criticized Seoul for the deal, saying it could embolden the Taliban.
“One has to say that this release under these conditions will make our difficulties in Afghanistan even bigger,” Commerce Minister Amin Farhang 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.”
A German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped a day before the South Koreans are still being held.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey, welcomed the release of the 12 hostages and expressed hope that those still being held would be released soon.
“U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists is long-standing, clear and well known,” he said, rejecting the notion the Taliban had gained legitimacy by direct negotiation with South Korea.
“The Taliban is a vicious terrorist movement that without justification or any reason took these individuals hostage, killed several of them,” he said. “I’m not sure that anyone thinks that a movement that engages as a matter of routine policy in kidnapping, bombing or torture and abuse of innocent individuals like these people has any legitimacy.”
'Coming back alive'
Relatives of the released South Korean hostages expressed relief.
“I talked to my parents on the phone and they cried and said ‘(our daughter) is coming back alive,”’ said Lee Jung-hoon, the brother of one woman released Wednesday. “On the other side of my mind ... I strongly hope that the remaining hostages will safely come back soon as well,” Lee said from South Korea.
All to be released
The insurgents have said they will free all the hostages, who were holding in different locations, in the next few days.
The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 hostages 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.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, welcomed the news of a deal and called for all the hostages to be freed quickly.
He said he used “all possible efforts” as secretary-general to help obtain the release of the hostages, talking to leaders in Afghanistan and the region who might have influence.
“I welcome that news that both the Korean government and Taliban representatives have agreed to release the remaining 19 hostages,” he said.
Abductions a key tactic
The Tuesday deal was made in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in the central Afghan city of Ghazni. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages have stressed the South Koreans kidnapped in Afghanistan were not missionaries, but were doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.
The Taliban had been demanding the release of militant prisoners in exchange for freeing the hostages. Afghan officials had ruled out any exchange, saying such a move would only encourage further abductions.
Abductions have become a key insurgent tactic in recent months in trying to destabilize the country, targeting both Afghan officials and foreigners helping with reconstruction. A German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped a day before the South Koreans are still being held.