South Korea paid Afghanistan's Taliban more than $20 million to release 19 missionaries they were holding hostage, a senior insurgent leader said on Saturday, vowing to use the funds to buy arms and mount suicide attacks.
The freed hostages flew out of Afghanistan on Friday to Dubai en route for South Korea. Seoul denies paying a ransom, but critics say negotiating with the Taliban sets a dangerous precedent that could spur more kidnappings -- which the Taliban have vowed to carry out.
"We got more than $20 million dollars from them (the Seoul government)," the commander told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "With it we will purchase arms, get our communication network renewed and buy vehicles for carrying out more suicide attacks."
"The money will also address to some extent the financial difficulties we have had," he said, but did not elaborate.
The commander is on the 10-man leadership council of the Islamist Taliban movement, which is led by the elusive Mullah Mohammad Omar.
He rejected an Afghan government claim that a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Brother, was killed in a U.S.-led operation on Thursday in the southern province of Helmand.
"This report is just propaganda," he said.
The South Korean Christian volunteers, part of a group of 23 missionaries kidnapped in southeast Afghanistan in mid-July, arrived in Dubai on a chartered United Nations plane overnight and were due to fly on to Seoul on Saturday.
The Taliban killed two male hostages, while two women released earlier as a goodwill gesture have already flown home.
Some of the released hostages on Friday told of how they lived in constant fear for their lives and were split up into small groups and shuttled around the Afghan countryside to avoid detection.
One Taliban member would tend to a farm by day and then grab a rifle and stand guard over hostages at night.
The kidnapping was the largest in the resurgent Taliban campaign against foreign forces since U.S.-led troops ousted the Islamists from power in 2001.
The Taliban decided to free the hostages after Seoul agreed to pull all its nationals out of the central Asian country.
They dropped their main demand that a group of prisoners held by the Afghan government be set free.
Some Afghan officials had said South Korea also agreed to pay a ransom during negotiations with the Taliban, which the insurgents confirmed -- and South Korea denied.
"We deny any payment for the release of South Korean hostages," an official at South Korea's presidential Blue House said on Saturday in response to the Taliban claim.
"The two conditions for the release are that we pull out our troops and stop Korean missionary work in Afghanistan by the end of the year," said the official who declined to be identified.
Seoul had already decided before the crisis to withdraw its 200 engineers and medical staff from Afghanistan by the end of 2008. Since the hostages were taken, it has banned its nationals from travelling there.