Taliban release three Korean women hostages
Kabul, August 29, 2007
Taliban insurgents freed three South Korean women hostages on Wednesday, the first of 19 Christian volunteers the Taliban agreed to release after South Korea said it would pull its troops out of Afghanistan.
Reuters witnesses saw the women being handed over to members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ghazni province.
Wearing long, traditional headscarfs, the women wept as they sat in an ICRC vehicle.
Taliban representative Qari Mohammad Bashir, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the agreement to free the Koreans, said seven more hostages would be freed on Wednesday.
He hoped all would be free in two or three days, he told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency.
The insurgents seized 23 Korean Christian volunteers on July 19 from a bus in Ghazni province. Two male hostages were killed by their captors early on in the crisis.
The Taliban released two women as a gesture of goodwill during the first round of talks but said on Tuesday they had reached a deal on the release of remaining 19.
South Korea's presidential Blue House said the agreement was on condition it withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within the year and stopped its nationals doing missionary work in Afghanistan.
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.
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 travelling there.
South Korean missionary groups said they would pull out of Afghanistan to comply with the deal.
The 23 volunteers were sent to Afghanistan by the Saemmul Church. South Korea's churches said the kidnapping had led evangelical groups to rethink their missionary zeal.
The National Council of Churches in Korea, one of the largest groups representing the country's Protestants, said in a statement it would abide by the government's pledge to end missionary work in Afghanistan.
"Through this incident, we will look back on the Korean churches' overseas volunteer and missionary work and make this an opportunity to bring about more effective and safer volunteer and missionary work," it said.
There are an estimated 17,000 South Korean Christian missionaries abroad -- the largest contingent after those from the United States -- many of them in volatile regions.
For many increasingly wealthy evangelical churches in the country, dispatching volunteers abroad has turned into a competition among churches, with larger numbers considered a gauge of the strength of their faith.
Internet discussion pages, a hotbed for debate in the world's most-wired country, were filled with comments welcoming the return but also with stinging criticism of Saemmul Church and the volunteers for ignoring obvious risks.
A minister who has been critical of what he sees as South Korean churches' indiscriminate push to spread the gospel said he doubted whether the hostage crisis would lead to change.
"South Korean churches must switch to missionary work of common sense, not missionary work of zeal," said Hwang Kyu-hak. - Reuters