Taliban free three South Korean hostages

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Taliban militants released three South Korean hostages today, the first of 19 captives scheduled to be freed under a deal struck between the insurgents and the South Korean government.

An Afghan government minister, however, criticised Seoul for the terms of the deal, in which it reiterated an existing commitment to withdraw its 200 troops from the country before the end of the year.

"One has to say that this release under these conditions will make our difficulties in Afghanistan even bigger," the country's commerce minister, Amin Farhang, said in an interview with Germany's Bayerischer Rundfunk radio. "We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan."

The three, all women, were first handed to tribal leaders, who took them to an agreed location where officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross picked them up, according to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the hand-over.

The women arrived in the central Afghan village of Qala-E-Kazi in a single car, their heads covered with red and green shawls. They said nothing to reporters, who were asked by Red Cross representatives not to question them.

Red Cross officials quickly took the three to their vehicles before leaving for the local Red Cross headquarters in the nearby town of Ghazni, witnesses said.

In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong said the three, who he identified as Ahn Hye-jin, Lee Jung-ran and Han Ji-young, did not appear to have any health problems.

To secure the release of the church workers, South Korea reaffirmed a pledge it made well before the hostage crisis began to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and prevent South Korean Christian missionaries from working there.

Seoul had already said it had banned missionaries from travelling to Afghanistan.

The Taliban apparently backed down on earlier demands for a prisoner exchange.

The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 hostages as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on July 19. In late July, the militants executed two male hostages, and they released two women earlier this month.

The insurgents have said they will free all the hostages, who they are holding in different locations, over the next few days. Mullah Basheer, a Taliban commander, said that up to seven other hostages would "possibly" be released later today.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, welcomed the news of a deal and called for all the hostages to be freed quickly.

He said he used "all possible efforts" as secretary-general to help obtain the release of the hostages, talking to leaders in Afghanistan and the region who might have influence.

"I welcome that news that both the Korean government and Taliban representatives have agreed to release the remaining 19 hostages," he said.

Yesterday's deal was made in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in the central Afghan city of Ghazni. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages have stressed that the South Koreans kidnapped in Afghanistan were not missionaries, but were doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.

The Taliban had been demanding the release of militant prisoners in exchange for freeing the hostages. Afghan officials had ruled out any exchange, saying such a move would only encourage further abductions.

Abductions have become a key insurgent tactic in recent months in trying to destabilise the country, targeting both Afghan officials and foreigners helping with reconstruction. A German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped a day before the South Koreans are still being held.