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2007/08/28 21:42 KST
(3rd LD) Cheong Wa Dae announces agreement with Taliban to release 19 Korean hostages

By Yoo Cheong-mo
SEOUL, Aug. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's presidential office said Tuesday that negotiators from the South Korean government and the Taliban reached an agreement to release all of the 19 South Korean hostages still held in Afghanistan.

   "The hostage release agreement was reached after direct talks between Korean and Taliban negotiators from 5:48 p.m. to 7:20 p.m. (Korea Standard Time). The South Korean government welcomes the agreement on the hostage release," presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon said in a press conference.

   "The agreement was reached on conditions that South Korea withdraw its troops stationed in Afghanistan by the year's end and impose a ban on its Christian nationals' missionary activities in Afghanistan," Cheon said.

   He said the actual timing for the hostage release can't be confirmed for now, adding it will be subject to further consultations with the Taliban captors.

   In an indirect telephone conversation with Yonhap News, a Taliban spokesman confirmed the agreement with Seoul to release all of the Korean hostages remaining in Afghanistan. He said the Korean hostages will be released gradually in groups of three to four persons for technical reasons.

   "The hostages are spread across Afghanistan. Thus they can't be released at one time. It will take several days," said the spokesman.

   Cheon expressed deep gratitude to the Afghan government, multi-national troops stationed in Afghanistan and international organizations for their support in the hostage release.

   "The government will take all necessary measures for the safe return of all the hostages," he said.

   Cheon said that President Roh Moo-hyun, who was briefed on the hostage release agreement, instructed related officials to do their best until all hostages are released and return home safely.

   "The good news has arrived and the whole nation is now relieved. Please make thorough efforts until the last moment. Everyone did good work," Roh was quoted as saying.

   Cheon said the 19 hostages, when freed, will be swiftly sent to Kabul, the Afghan capital, to undergo medical checkups before heading home.

   "The Korean negotiators faithfully contacted the Taliban captors and gave a sufficient explanation that swapping Korean hostages for Taliban prisoners, a key demand from the Taliban, is not within the authority of the Korean government. That strategy seems to have worked," Cheon said.

   The Taliban on July 19 abducted 23 South Korean civilians who were travelling in Afghanistan for volunteer services sponsored by a Korean church. Two men were killed and two female hostages released, leaving a total of 19 held captive in the country.

   Families of the 19 remaining hostages, who have been gathered at a church south of Seoul since the kidnapping 41 days ago, reacted excitedly to the news of the dramatic hostage release, with many shedding tears as they were carried away by their mixed emotions. They hugged one another and exchanged cheerful congratulations.