Two South Korean women freed by Afghanistan's Taliban after more than three weeks in captivity prepared to head home yesterday as fresh talks began over the release of their 19 compatriots.
Kim Gin-a, 32, and Kim Kyung-ja, 37, spent the night at a "safe place" in Afghanistan and arrangements were being made for their departure, the South Korean embassy in Kabul said.
Pale, tearful and clutching Muslim headscarves, they were handed over to international aid agency officials near the southern Afghan town of Ghazni late on Monday, ending an ordeal that began on July 19.
A foreign ministry official in Seoul said the women were to have medical check-ups at the Bagram military base north of Kabul before being flown home.
There was joy and relief in Seoul that two of the group had been freed, but concern for the remaining 19 South Korean hostages.
The Taliban abducted the 23-member Christian aid group, including 16 women, on July 19 as they were traveling by bus through an insurgency-plagued part of southern Afghanistan.
The militants have shot dead two of men from the group and threatened to kill more if the Afghan government does not free Taliban prisoners, a demand that has been repeatedly rejected.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told a Cabinet meeting he hoped Monday's releases "will be a good signal for the release of all the hostages."
"The government has to make greater efforts to have them released. We shouldn't relax until the last moment," Roh said.
Kim Ji-ung, a brother of Kim Gin-a, said he was relieved but "at the same time I have a heavy heart because of the other hostages who are still in captivity."
Desperate families have appealed to the US and Afghan governments for help.
A new round of talks -- the fifth -- between Taliban negotiators and a South Korean delegation in Ghazni were expected yesterday.
"The talks will continue," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said on Monday after the two were freed.
"As we freed two sick female hostages as a gesture of goodwill we hope that the Afghan government will also free our prisoners," Ahmadi said.
The embassy could not confirm if talks were under way yesterday but a spokesman said the "negotiation channel" was still open.
The talks are being held at the offices of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Ghazni, a town 140km south of Kabul.
Ghazni governor Mirajuddin Pattan told reporters on Monday there had been no ransom paid for the two women and said there would be none for the others.
He demanded the Taliban "immediately and unconditionally free the rest of the hostages," a call echoed by South Korea and the US.
There was meanwhile fresh concern for a man who identified himself as a German national abducted a day before the South Koreans, who said in a telephone call on Monday arranged by the Taliban that his captors wanted to kill him.
Giving his name as Rudolph Blechschmidt, he said he was ill and appealed to the German government to help secure his freedom.
"The Taliban want to kill me," he said, speaking in broken English. "I live with Taliban in the mountains. I am in danger also, and I am very sick."
It was not possible to independently confirm his identity.
A German reported to be Rudolph Blechschmidt, a 62-year-old engineer, was seized on July 18 with a German colleague.
The other German collapsed a few days later and was then shot dead by his captors.