Last of the South Korean hostages are freed

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The Independent Online

The Taliban has released the last of 21 South Korean hostages in central Afghanistan, ending a six-week drama in which two captives were murdered.

Seven hostages were handed over in two groups to officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross on a road in Ghazni province yesterday.

The final three, two women and one man, were covered in dust as they emerged from the desert, accompanied by three armed men, and were turned over to waiting ICRC officials. None of the released hostages made any comment.

The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 South Koreans as they travelled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on 19 July. In late July, the militants killed two of the men, and they freed two women earlier this month as gesture of goodwill.

On Wednesday, the Taliban released 12 hostages, after striking a deal with South Korea in which Seoul reaffirmed a pledge it made before the hostage crisis to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Seoul also said it would prevent South Korean Christian missionaries from working in Afghanistan, something it had already promised to do.

The Taliban apparently backed down on earlier demands for a prisoner exchange. South Korea and the Taliban have said no money changed hands as part of the deal. An Indonesian government official who took part in the negotiations on Tuesday between three South Korean officials and two Taliban commanders where the deal was struck also said money was not brought up.

"From what I saw and from what I heard in the talks, it was not an issue," Heru Wicaksono said.

Mr Wicaksono, a high-ranking official at the Indonesian embassy in Kabul, said the Taliban were motivated by "humanitarian feelings" to free the captives.

The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which took place in Ghazni and were facilitated by the ICRC.

South Korea's government, which has been under pressure at home, said it had tried to adhere to international principles while putting priority on saving the captives. But the Afghan Commerce minister Amin Farhang criticised the deal, saying: "We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan."