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Released hostages in Afghanistan likely to return home over weekend

ICC Note: First interview of South Korean hostages reveals that bus driver picked up two locals who ended up stopping the bus by firing guns 20 minutes after they had gotten on.

By Byun Duk-kun

8/31/07 Afghanistan/South Korea (Yonhap) – Nineteen South Koreans released by Taliban kidnappers will likely return home Sunday, following a 43-day hostage crisis that left two male hostages dead.

혻혻 The homecoming comes amid the Seoul government’s denial of reports that it paid the Taliban kidnappers a huge ransom.

혻 In a press conference held in Kabul , two of the people who were held hostage offered their apologies to the South Korean people and government for causing trouble and agony.

혻혻 “I’ve had sleepless nights, thinking of what we have caused to the country,” said Yu Kyeong-sik. “I am very sorry.”

Yu, 55, said the Christian aid group left Kabul for Kandahar on July 19, thinking it would be safe to depart in the afternoon. But their driver picked up two locals, who about 20 minutes later stopped the bus by firing guns.

혻혻 The last of the hostages kidnapped by the Taliban on July 19 were freed late Thursday, one day after two male and 10 female South Koreans were released, officials said Friday.

혻혻 Twenty-three were originally seized while traveling through Ghazni province in central Afghanistan , but the Taliban killed two male hostages in late July and released two female hostages earlier this month shortly after face-to-face negotiations with South Korean representatives began.

혻혻 A breakthrough came in a Tuesday meeting between South Korean officials and Taliban representatives at which the militants agreed to free all the remaining hostages.

혻혻 Seoul announced the conditions for the hostage release included withdrawal of its 200-member engineering troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, as well as imposing a ban on any unauthorized visits to the Central Asian nation, especially by Christian missionaries.

혻 The swift release of the hostages, however, spawned suspicions that the South Korean government may have paid large amounts in ransom.

혻 Presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-seon Tuesday flatly denied the allegation, saying there were no other conditions for the release of the hostages “officially” discussed or agreed to.

혻혻 However, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper on Friday reported Seoul paid US$2 million to Taliban insurgents, quoting unidentified Afghan officials, who were involved in the hostage negotiations, while the Arab television network Al Jazeera reported the South Korean government is believed to have paid as much as $40 million.

혻혻 “We understand there are various concerns over meeting face-to-face with the insurgent group, but I believe saving 19 lives was nevertheless the right thing to do,” a government official said.

혻혻 Foreign Ministry officials said the hostages are likely to be flown to Dubai , United Arab Emirates , on Friday or Saturday and from there catch a flight to Seoul .

혻혻 They are likely to go through a different kind of hardship here as the hostage crisis has sparked a heated debate over the legitimacy of their presence in the volatile nation…[Go To Full Story]