Nineteen South Korean Christian volunteers abducted by Taliban militiamen in Afghanistan more than five weeks ago appeared to be on the brink of release Tuesday after negotiators for both sides said they had struck a deal that should set them free within days.
Their freedom appeared to come with few concessions from the South Korean side. South Korean negotiators pledged only to honor a previous commitment to pull the country’s noncombat military contingent out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. South Korea also agreed to bar Christian groups and other nongovernmental organizations from traveling to and working in the war-ravaged country, but it had already clamped down on Christian missionaries seeking to travel to countries where their presence is seen as an irritant.
The agreement made no mention of releasing Taliban prisoners in Afghan or U.S. custody, which the kidnappers had said would be the price of the Koreans’ freedom.
“We asked for some conditions, and the Korean delegation accepted our demands,” said Taliban representative Qari Mohammed Basher in a phone interview after emerging from negotiations with South Korean diplomats. The two sides met under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Ghazni province, where 23 members of Saemmul Church near Seoul were seized July 19 as they traveled by bus.
The lack of any obvious gain for the Taliban in Tuesday’s deal aroused suspicion that South Korea had paid a ransom. But both sides denied that ransom had been paid, and neither acknowledged any other conditions.
The Taliban said only that it had agreed not to attack the Korean forces as they leave Afghanistan, Basher said.
“We welcome the agreement to release 19 South Koreans,” presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said Tuesday in Seoul. He added that money was not discussed during talks with the militia, which was ousted from power by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 and is fighting Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops struggling to bolster it.
The hostages’ families in South Korea greeted news of their impending release with a mix of exhilaration and shame that the abductions had caused a national trauma.
“We once again offer our deepest thanks and apologies to both the government and South Korean people who have suffered an ordeal for the incident but supported us,” said an emotional Cha Sung-min, a spokesman for the hostages’ families whose sister was among those abducted.
Despite relief that the 41-day crisis may be ending, there is resentment in South Korea toward the aid workers. The church group says its members did not go to Afghanistan to proselytize, but to assist in civilian projects.
Yet the group members are widely seen in South Korea as naive at best and certainly reckless for traveling through territory avoided even by Afghans.
Their abduction left their government in a bind: frustrated that the kidnapping was the cost of being seen as a U.S. ally in Afghanistan, yet unable to draw on its Washington connections to free its citizens. The kidnappers had demanded the hostages be exchanged for Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government or U.S. troops -- something South Korea could not deliver.
Karzai and his American backers immediately rejected a prisoner swap, saying a deal would only encourage more kidnappings. The Taliban responded by killing two male hostages.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reacted by sending a high-level delegation of diplomats to Kabul, the Afghan capital, to request direct talks with the Taliban. Those contacts led to the release of two slightly ill female prisoners Aug. 13.
South Korean officials said Tuesday that their negotiators continued to press the point that they had no leverage over the fate of Taliban prisoners. That insistence, they maintain, led the fundamentalist militia to eventually drop demands for the release of their comrades.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Wallace from Tokyo. Staff writer Jinna Park in Seoul contributed to this report.