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Taliban agree to free S. Korean hostages

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By AMIR SHAH
Associated Press / Tuesday, August 28, 2007

GHAZNI, Afghanistan – The Taliban agreed Tuesday to free 19 South Korean church volunteers held hostage since July after the government in Seoul pledged to end all missionary work and keep a promise to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

In eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked NATO troops helping build a bridge, killing three soldiers.

In striking the deal, the Taliban apparently backed down on earlier demands for a prisoner exchange, but may still emerge politically stronger having negotiated successfully with a foreign government, an analyst said.

Relatives of the hostages in South Korea welcomed news of the deal, which did not specify when the captives would be released.

“I would like to dance,” said Cho Myung-ho, mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo-yeon.

The deal was made in direct talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in central Afghanistan. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said from Seoul that the deal had been reached “on the condition that South Korea withdraws troops by the end of year and South Korea suspends missionary work in Afghanistan,” he said.

South Korea did not appear to commit to anything it did not already planned to do. Seoul has already said it would withdraw its 200 troops in the country by the end of the year and has also sought to prevent missionaries from causing trouble in countries where they were not wanted.

The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages have said that the 19 kidnapped South Koreans were not missionaries, but were doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.

Taliban commander Mullah Basheer told a media conference following the talks that the Taliban would say Wednesday when and how the captives would be released. They are believed to be held in several different locations.

Missionaries from South Korea and scores of other countries have historically been active in Afghanistan, but there is no way of knowing how many are there now.

Most operate without the knowledge of their governments, and there is some disagreement on the boundaries between missionary work, proselytizing and Christian-inspired aid work.

An analyst said the Taliban, which has been leading an increasingly bloody insurgency against Afghan and Western security forces, emerged from the hostage crisis with increased political power.

“Maybe they did not achieve all that they demanded but they achieved a lot in terms of political credibility,” said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “The fact that the Koreans negotiated with them directly and more or less in their territory … is in itself an achievement.”

Taliban spokesmen have previously said they had no interest in a ransom payment.

Presidential spokesman Cheon told The Associated Press that he was informed by South Korean officials in Afghanistan that money was not discussed during negotiations with the Taliban.

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 executed two male hostages. They released two women earlier this month as a good will gesture.

“We are sorry to the public for causing concern, but we thank the government officials for the (impending) release,” Cha Sung-min, whose 32-year-old sister Cha Hye-jin was being held, told the AP.

“Still, our hearts are broken as two died, so we convey our sympathy to the bereaved family members,” said Cha, 31, who has served as a spokesman for the hostages’ relatives.

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.

Violence in Afghanistan is running at its highest level since the Taliban ouster.

The suicide bomber approached the troops building a bridge in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing three soldiers and wounding six, NATO said. The alliance did not disclose the nationalities of the victims or the exact location of the blast. Most foreign troops in the east of the country are American.

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops, meanwhile, killed up to 21 suspected Taliban militants in three separate clashes in southern Afghanistan, and a roadside blast killed four Afghan soldiers in the east, officials said.

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Written by afghandevnews

August 28, 2007 at 1:16 pm

Posted in Security

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