Wed, Aug 29, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Taliban agrees to set 19 South Korean hostages free

AP , GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN

Taliban militants agreed yesterday to free 19 South Korean church volunteers held hostage for more than a month after Seoul said it would end all missionary work and keep a promise to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

The agreement, reached in direct talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean officials in central Afghanistan, ends a hostage crisis that had exposed the growing security problems facing Afghanistan.

Relatives of the hostages in South Korea welcomed news of the impending release.

"I would like to dance," said Cho Myung-ho, mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo-yeon.

South Korean spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said from Seoul that the deal had been reached "on the condition that South Korea withdraws troops by the end of year and South Korea suspends missionary work in Afghanistan."

In the deal, South Korea did not appear to commit to anything it had not already planned to do.

Seoul had said it would withdraw its 200 non-combat troops by the end of the year and has also sought to prevent missionaries from causing trouble in countries where they were not wanted.

The government and relatives of the hostages had insisted that the 19 kidnapped South Koreans were not missionaries, but were doing aid work.

The Taliban had also demanded the release of militant prisoners in exchange for the captives' freedom, but Afghan officials said that an exchange was not possible because it would only encourage further kidnappings.

Cheon said that he was informed by South Korean officials in Afghanistan that money was not discussed during negotiations.

There was no word on when the captives would be released.

The Taliban kidnapped the 23 South Koreans as they traveled from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on July 19.

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