GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents said on Tuesday they would release 19 South Korean Christian volunteers they have held for nearly six weeks provided Seoul pulls out its troops and stops Korean missionary work in Afghanistan by year-end.
South Korea’s presidential office issued a statement setting out the terms of the agreement, and Taliban representative Qari Mohammad Bashir confirmed a deal had been struck.
The Taliban’s conditions did not include their main previous demand -- 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, adding that the Taliban would start freeing the hostages on Wednesday.
The announcement followed the resumption of negotiations, which had been on hold for two weeks after the Korean side said it was unable to meet the kidnappers’ demand for the release of Taliban prisoners held by the 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 in their families’ arms as soon as possible,” a South Korean presidential spokesman said, adding that their release could take time.
The South Korean government had decided before the hostage crisis to pull out its small contingent of engineers and medical staff from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
Since the hostages were taken it has banned its nationals from traveling there.
The insurgents seized 23 Korean Christian volunteers on July 19 from a bus in Ghazni province. They killed two male hostages early on in the crisis, but released two women as a gesture of goodwill during the first round of talks.
Afghan Trade and Industry Minister Amin Farhang criticized South Korea’s government for pulling its troops out of the country and expressed the hope that other countries would not follow Seoul’s example.
“If every government were to do this it would be the beginning of a kind of capitulation,” Farhang told Germany’s Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. “It’s like a demand of the Taliban.”
The result of capitulation will likely be more abductions, the paper reported Farhang as saying.
The hostages’ relatives in South Korea, however, reacted differently. They cheered, hugged and chatted on their mobile phones after news broke that the hostages would be released.
“We knew the negotiation process was turning favorable, but we never thought it would happen so soon. When the announcement came out, there was a commotion in the room as everyone hugged each other,” a spokesman for the hostage families, Cha Sung-min, told reporters.
Family members flocked to the Saemmul Church outside Seoul where relatives have been holding a vigil.
“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 a daughter among the hostages.
The church has been criticized in South Korea for sending inexperienced Christian volunteers to the volatile Muslim country. South Korea is the world’s second biggest source of Christian missionaries, many of them working in hot spots.
“We are very sorry to have caused any problems to the country over the kidnappings,” Cha 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, in a reference to the two male hostages who were killed.
The kidnapping of the Koreans was the largest case of abductions in the resurgent Taliban campaign since U.S.-led troops ousted the Islamists from power in 2001.
One day earlier, Taliban fighters seized two German aid workers and five Afghan colleagues in Wardak province which, like Ghazni, is southwest of Kabul.
The Taliban have killed one German, but are still holding the other along with four Afghans. One Afghan escaped.
Additional reporting by Cheon Jong-woo and Lee Jin-joo in Seoul, Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Lou Charbonneau in Berlin
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