Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Taliban Agree To Free S. Korean Hostages: AP

GHAZNI, Afghanistan - The Taliban agreed Tuesday to free 19 South Korean church volunteers held hostage since July after the government in Seoul pledged to end all missionary work and keep a promise to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

In eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked NATO troops helping build a bridge, killing three soldiers.

The Taliban originally seized 23 South Koreans, but have since killed two of the hostages and released two others. They had initially demanded the withdrawal of South Korean troops from the country and the release of prisoners in exchange for freeing the hostages, but Afghan officials had ruled out any exchange, saying it would only encourage further kidnappings.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said South Korean and Taliban delegates at face-to-face talks Tuesday in the central town of Ghazni had "reached an agreement" to free the captives.

South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said the deal had been reached "on the condition that South Korea withdraws troops by the end of year and South Korea suspends missionary work in Afghanistan," he said.

South Korea has already said it planned to withdraw its troops by the end of the year. Some 200 South Korean soldiers have been deployed in Afghanistan for reconstruction efforts, not combat.

"We welcome the agreement to release 19 South Koreans," said Cheon.

South Korean missionaries have been active in Afghanistan, although the hostage group's church has said those kidnapped were not missionaries, but were doing aid work.

There was no word on when the captives would be released.

Tuesday's agreement came after face-to-face talks between both sides in the central town of Ghazni. It was the fourth time the two sides had held direct negotiations. All the talks had been mediated by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Abductions have become a key insurgent tactic in recent months in trying to destabilize 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.

Violence in Afghanistan is running at its highest level since the Taliban ouster.

The suicide bomber approached the troops building a bridge in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing three soldiers and wounding six, NATO said.

The alliance did not disclose the nationalities of the victims or the exact location of the blast. Most foreign troops in the east of the country are American.

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops, meanwhile, killed up to 21 suspected Taliban militants in three separate clashes in southern Afghanistan, and a roadside blast killed four Afghan soldiers in the east, officials said.(AP)

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