Mon, Sep 03, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Tears flow as hostages arrive home

RETURN Back in South Korea, one of the Christian volunteers freed by the Taliban said that they went to Afghanistan to `share the love we have received'

AP , ANYANG, SOUTH KOREA

Nineteen South Koreans freed by Taliban captors returned home to loved ones' tearful embraces yesterday, expressing sorrow for two in their group who were killed in Afghanistan and apologizing to the nation for causing trouble.

The 19 former hostages, released in stages last week under a deal between the Taliban and the South Korean government, arrived on a flight from Dubai. They were reunited with family members at a hospital in Anyang, south of Seoul, where they were receiving medical checks.

After hugs and tears, some family members were gently critical, questioning why the group went to Afghanistan in the first place.

"I thought you would be killed," Cheon Kwang-sil, 77, told her granddaughter Lee Young-kyung, who at 22 was the youngest of the hostages. "I told you not to go there."

Lee, thin and pale with hands marked by insect bites, said she spent 20 days of the six-week captivity in a cellar.

"I was really scared the whole time," she said, adding she was unable to eat well. "I drank water from a stream."

Earlier, Yoo Kyung-shik, at 55 the oldest of the group, spoke briefly with reporters at the airport, apologizing to the South Korean people and government for causing concern to the nation.

"We appreciate the Korean people for helping us to return to our families," Yoo said. "We owe a big debt to the nation and people."

Fighting back tears, Yoo also expressed condolences to the families of the two hostages who were killed. Their relatives, holding photos of their lost loved ones, were also at the airport.

The group of 23 Christian volunteers from a suburban Seoul church was abducted on July 19 while on their way to do aid work in Kandahar.

The Taliban killed two men in the early stages of the crisis.

Critics say the group's ``rash'' trip sullied the country's international reputation by forcing their government to negotiate directly with the Taliban -- a move widely seen in South Korea as a violation of international principles regarding contact with terrorists.

Yoo tried to offer an explanation for why they made the trip.

"We went there to realize and share the love we have received, albeit in a small way," he said, adding they now "resolve to live a life that meets public expectations, knowing that we escaped death."

The individual reunions were interrupted for a prayer.

"We thank God and His blessing, the [South Korean] people and government officials for bringing our loved ones back home," said Sohn Young-kyu, a pastor and doctor at the hospital, leading a group prayer.

Kim Man-bok, chief of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, called for the country to learn lessons from the ordeal.

"I hope that the government and the public make efforts that this kind of incident would not happen again," he told reporters at the airport.

Kim, who directed negotiations for the hostages' release, returned home with them.

"I am sorry for having failed to rescue all 23 kidnapped people," Kim said.

There also have been persistent claims that South Korea paid the Taliban a ransom, which Seoul has consistently denied.

"There was no such deal," Kim reiterated yesterday.

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