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Taliban kidnappers release 2 South Korean hostages

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Special to The Times

kabul, afghanistan -- Describing the act as a gesture of goodwill, Taliban kidnappers freed two South Korean Christian aid workers Monday, but warned they still want Taliban prisoners released in exchange for the 19 other Koreans they hold hostage.

The Taliban released the two women into the custody of Afghan elders, who drove them to a roadside meeting in the Afghan desert with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The women were selected for release because they were ill, Afghan officials said.

Weeping but able to walk on their own, the former hostages were bundled into Red Cross SUVs and driven to a South Korean military unit based in Afghanistan. The South Korean government said the women would return to Seoul as soon as possible.

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The Taliban has killed two male hostages since snatching 23 members of a church group on July 19 as they traveled a dangerous stretch of highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

The militia said releasing the two women demonstrated the progress being made in four days of face-to-face talks with a delegation of South Korean negotiators. The meetings have been held under the auspices of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in the city of Ghazni.

Taliban negotiators told reporters last weekend that they were optimistic that a deal could be worked out with the Korean delegation. The Afghan government subsequently barred all media from the site of the talks, saying the Taliban were exploiting the media access.

But South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said today that it had spoken with the local Taliban commander holding the hostages, who said the fate of the rest depended upon the release of Taliban fighters from Afghan and American custody.

“Now the ball is in Korea’s court,” the paper quoted Abdullah Jan as saying. “They have to exchange Taliban prisoners for Korean hostages.”

The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has vowed it will not swap any Taliban prisoners for the captured civilians, saying a deal would only encourage more kidnappings.

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There was no indication of whether the Korean government had made concessions to secure the release of the two women. Seoul has repeatedly said it is powerless to free the Taliban prisoners, and has refused to reveal details of the negotiations.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said his government was “moving to win the rest of our citizens held hostage through various means,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Other Afghan politicians insisted that no deals had been done to free the women.

“The two female Koreans were released by the Taliban, first because both were sick, and second, this was the positive results of the negotiations between Taliban and Korean delegations,” Ghazni Gov. Marajudin Pathan said in a telephone interview.

But some Koreans assume that any deal to free the hostages will involve paying a ransom.

“The South Korean government will wish to solve this matter through monetary means,” said Chang Byung-ock, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

The South Korean government identified the released church workers as Kim Ji-na, 32, a former animation lecturer at a vocational college, and Kim Kyong-ja, 37, a former volunteer teacher at the church.

Their freedom was met with mixed emotions in Seoul: relief at a breath of good news, tempered by dread over the fate of those still being held.

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The church group has come under intense criticism in Korea for what is seen as its naivete in traveling to one of the most dangerous zones in Afghanistan. Sensitive to that public anger, the families of the two women issued a statement apologizing for causing such trouble.

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and staff writer Wallace from New Delhi. Special correspondent Jinna Park contributed to this report from Seoul.

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