Taliban militants were expected to release seven remaining South Korean hostages today, bringing to an end a six-week drama that saw two captives executed by the kidnappers in Afghanistan, a South Korean official said.
South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said that once free, the group would be heading to Kabul before returning home via Dubai.
Yesterday, the Taliban released 12 of 19 South Koreans held hostage, as part of a deal with Seoul that one Afghan minister warned would embolden the insurgents.
The hostages were released into the care of officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross at three separate locations in central Afghanistan.
None of the 12 spoke to reporters.
The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 South Koreans as they travelled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on July 19. In late July, the militants killed two male hostages, and they released two women earlier this month as gesture of goodwill.
The first three women freed arrived in a village of Qala-e-Kazi in a single car, their heads covered with red and green shawls. Red Cross officials quickly took them to their vehicles before leaving for the office of the Afghan Red Crescent in the town of Ghazni, witnesses said.
Under the terms of Tuesday’s deal, South Korea reaffirmed a pledge it made before the hostage crisis began to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Seoul also said it would prevent South Korean Christian missionaries from working in the staunchly Muslim country, something it had already promised to do.
The Taliban apparently backed down on earlier demands for a prisoner exchange. But the militant group, which killed two South Korean hostages last month, could emerge with enhanced political legitimacy for negotiating successfully with a foreign government.
“One has to say that this release under these conditions will make our difficulties in Afghanistan even bigger,” Commerce Minister Amin Farhang told Germany’s Bayerischer Rundfunk radio. “We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan.”
A German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped a day before the South Koreans are still being held.
South Korea’s government, which has been under intense domestic pressure to bring the hostages home safely, said it had tried to adhere to international principles while putting priority on saving the captives.
The deal was made in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in Ghazni. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were facilitated by the ICRC.
Afghanistan has seen a rash of kidnappings of foreigners over the last year.
The Italian and Afghan governments were heavily criticised in March for agreeing to free five Taliban prisoners to win the release of an Italian journalist.
The head of the Italian aid agency Emergency also has said Rome also paid a €1.5m ransom last year for a kidnapped Italian photographer – a claim Italian officials did not deny.