2 Freed Korean Hostages to Leave Afghanistan 'Very Soon'

( [email protected] ) Aug 14, 2007 12:10 PM EDT

The two South Korean women freed by their Taliban captors are in good condition and will fly home "very soon," a Korean embassy spokesman said after their release Monday.

"They are in a good condition and they are staying in a safe place under our protection and are undergoing medical checks," reported the spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy.

He added that they would return to Korea "very soon, but still their flight schedule has not been fixed yet."

After several false promises and reports over the weekend that the hostages would be or have been released, the Taliban on Monday came through with its promise to release the two hostages, who were said to be ill to the point where their lives were in danger.

The Taliban called the release of the hostages a “goodwill gesture” towards the Korean people and officials, according to Agence France-Presse. It was the first breakthrough in a drama that began more than three weeks ago when a busload of 23 South Korean church volunteers was abducted on its way to provide free medical services to poor Afghan citizens.

The handover came after two days of face-to-face talks between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation. Franz Rauchenstein, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said officials were ready to host more talks at the office of the Afghan Red Crescent in Ghazni, but the two sides were talking by phone for now.

“We stand ready to play the role of neutral intermediary for the release of the next 19 hostages and we are urging the two parties to make it a short process in the interest of the hostages," he said, according to The Associated Press.

The rebels are still demanding a prisoner-hostage exchange for the remaining 19 Koreans. Both Kabul and Washington, however, have remained adamant about not giving into terrorism and stated that the release of Taliban prisoners is not an option.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was criticized by the United States and other Western countries earlier this year for giving into terrorism after he released five Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian reporter in March. Although the Afghan president has vowed that the trade was a one-time deal, critics say the prisoner exchange incident was enough to encourage recent abductions in the country.

With the U.S. and Afghan governments taking a hard-line stance against a prisoner swap, current South Korea-Taliban talks appear to be one of the last hopes.

Ghazni Gov. Marajudin Pathan has suggested that the hostage standoff could be solved with a ransom payment.

Since the abduction of the Korean Christians – 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 aid group, Bae Hyung-kyu, was the first victim, found dead July 25 with 10 bullet holes in his body. The body of the second victim, 29-year-old Shim Sung-min, was found July 30.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry identified the recently freed hostages as Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Ji-na. Previous media reports said they were 37 and 32 years old, respectively.