Taliban militants in Afghanistan released four more South Korean hostages Thursday after freeing 12 of the remaining 19 South Korean hostages the day before in three separate rounds of handovers.
A rebel negotiator told Agence France-Presse that the Taliban had handed the four hostages to Afghan tribal leaders and will hand over the remaining three late Thursday. An Associated Press reporter who witnessed all three of Wednesday’s handovers also saw the latest handover of two men and two women to the officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross on a road in central Afghanistan’s Janda area.
"They (the hostages) are in different locations and we have to bring them to one place before handing them over," explained Taliban negotiator Qari Mohammad Bashir, who was involved in a series of meetings with a South Korean delegation to free the aid workers, according to AFP.
South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said Thursday that once the remaining hostages were freed, the group will be heading to Kabul before returning home via Dubai.
The release of the final three hostages will put an end to a six-week hostage crisis that began with the abduction of the original group of 23 that was traveling by bus in the insurgency-plagued Ghazni province to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens.
Since the July 19 abduction – the largest abduction of foreigners in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 – two male hostages have been killed. The leader of the group, Bae Hyung-kyu, was found dead on July 25, and the body of 29-year-old Shim Sung-min was found July 30. Prior to the latest releases, two females – 37-year-old Kim Kyung-ja and 32-year-old Kim Ji-na – were freed on Aug. 13.
The recent handovers took place not long after the Taliban and South Korea struck a deal in which Korea promised to withdraw its 200 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and to block South Korean Christian missionaries from working in the country. The rebels had reportedly foregone their original demand for a prisoner exchange.
Although the South Korea presidential spokesman said Tuesday it may take some time before the actual releases take place, the first set of hostages – three women – was released the next day in the village of Qala-e-Kazi and was followed several hours later by the release of one man and four women in a desert close to Shah Baz. As evening approached, four more hostages – one man and three women – were handed over on a main road about 30 miles from Ghazni, according to The Associated Press.
Sammul Presbyterian Church in Bundang, South Korea, the home church of the Korean hostages, has identified the 12 released on Wednesday as Ahn Hye-jin, Lee Jeong-ran, Han Ji-young, Ko Se-hoon, Lim Hyun-joo, Lee Sun-young, Lee Ji-young, Ryu Jung-hwa, Seo Myung-hwa, Lee Ju-yeon, Cha Hye-jin, and Ryu Kyung-sik.
The identities of the most recently freed hostages have not yet been confirmed.
Regarding the hostages released Wednesday, Greg Muller, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told AFP that “physically they seem in good shape.”
“They seem – after six weeks in detention – very much relieved, which is a natural reaction after an extremely stressful experience,” he said.
None of the 12 had said anything to reporters and all were released into the care of officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The 12 spent their first night of freedom in a "safe place," an official in the South Korean embassy in Kabul said, refusing to divulge their whereabouts.
"They are taking a rest," he told AP on condition of anonymity. “They will be leaving Afghanistan soon.”
Contributor Michelle Vu in Washington contributed to this report.