Taliban release 12 Korean hostages

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents freed 12 South Korean hostages in Afghanistan on Wednesday, a day after reaching a deal with Korean and Indonesian negotiators on the release of the 19 Christian volunteers.

Three South Korean women were released first, followed by four women and a man -- handed over to members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ghazni province, Reuters witnesses said.

A third batch comprising three women and a man were released later on Wednesday, they said.

Wearing long, traditional headscarves, the three women who were first to be freed wept as they sat in an ICRC vehicle.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, said by telephone he expected all of the hostages to be free by Thursday.

The insurgents seized 23 Korean Christian volunteers on July 19 from a bus in Ghazni province and initially demanded the release of Taliban members held prisoner by the Afghan government.

Two male hostages were killed by their captors early on in the crisis. The Taliban released two women as a gesture of goodwill during an initial round of talks and said on Tuesday they had reached a deal on the release of the remaining 19.

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A Taliban representative said on Wednesday they dropped the demand for Taliban prisoners to be released after they realized South Korea could not force the Afghan government to free anyone.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said the final agreement was on condition it withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within the year and stopped its nationals doing missionary work in Afghanistan.

However, South Korea had already decided before the crisis to withdraw its contingent of about 200 engineers and medical staff from Afghanistan by the end of 2007. Since the hostages were taken it has banned its nationals from traveling there.

A spokesman for South Korea’s president, Chon Ho-seon, did not respond to questions at a news briefing in Seoul on Wednesday on whether a ransom was part of the deal but said South Korea had done what was needed.

“We believe it is any country’s responsibility to respond with flexibility to save lives as long as you don’t depart too far from the principles and practice of the international community,” Chon said.

Two Indonesians were also involved in the negotiations, Indonesia said.

Relatives waiting in South Korea cheered when news of the releases came through, said a representative of the families.

“We want to see all of them released,” representative Lee Jeong-hun told reporters.

With additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL, Jan Agha in GHAZNI and Jack Kim and Jessica Kim in SEOUL