(4th LD) Seoul confirms release of two S. Korean hostages in Afghanistan |
By Byun Duk-kun
SEOUL, Aug. 13 (Yonhap) -- Two of 21 South Koreans held hostage in Afghanistan have been released and moved to a safe area, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry said Monday.
The released hostages are Kim Gina, 32, and Kim Kyung-ja, 37, ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong told reporters.
The two, Cho said, "were released on Aug. 13 and have been handed over to our side."
"We feel fortunate that at least some of the hostages have been released, but we again urge the kidnappers to immediately release all our citizens they hold hostage," the ministry spokesman said in a press briefing.
Foreign Minister Song Min-soon welcomed the release of the hostages and said the government is "moving to win the rest of our citizens held hostage through various means."
The released were part of a 23-member aid group that was seized on July 19 while traveling to the southern city of Kandahar. Two male members of the group, including its 42-year-old leader Bae Hyung-kyu, were shot to death.
South Korea's presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, also welcomed the release of the women but expressed regrets over the "continued captivity of the remaining 19."
A ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later said the two will be flown back to South Korea as soon as possible, but will first undergo a medical checkup at a South Korean military unit in Bagram, about 100 kilometers north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The release of the two hostages, earlier said to be in life-threatening health conditions, apparently comes as a result of face-to-face meetings between South Korean officials and Taliban militants that began Saturday.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a purported spokesman for the militant group, had claimed the two were freed Saturday as a goodwill gesture from the leadership council of the Taliban, but later said the timing of their release had not been fixed, though the decision to let them go stood firm.
The purported Taliban spokesman said earlier Monday that the two would be freed at 4 p.m. local time (1130 GMT).
The ministry official, speaking anonymously, said the hostages were released unconditionally, but refused to say whether there have been demands for the release of the rest of the hostages, citing ongoing negotiations.
"Our goal is to win the safe release of the remaining 19, and we will continue to work toward that end," the official said.
The Taliban militants earlier demanded the South Korean captives be traded with the same number of Taliban prisoners, a demand rejected by Kabul, which was roundly criticized earlier in the year for releasing five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the freedom of an Italian journalist.
The United States, which is also a key to the hostage-for-prisoner swap, has also refused to make any concessions to Taliban rebels, which it believes are linked to the international terrorist group al-Qaeda.
In a telephone interview with the Yonhap News Agency, a man claiming to be a regional commander of the Taliban for Ghazni Province said the two female hostages had been handed over to Afghan elders and were on their way to the Afghan Red Crescent Society office in the city of Ghazni.
Seoul officials refused to disclose any other details of the release, citing possible threats to the safety of the remaining hostages.