Freedom for Last Three Korean Hostages

Taliban militants in Afghanistan have released the last three South Korean hostages Thursday after freeing 16 of the 19 South Korean hostages over the last two days in separate rounds of handovers.

|PIC1|A rebel negotiator told Agence France-Presse that the Taliban had handed over four hostages to Afghan tribal leaders earlier on Thursday while the remaining three were released later on Thursday afternoon.

An Associated Press reporter who witnessed all three of Wednesday's handovers also saw the morning 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," said 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 free, the group would head to Kabul before returning home via Dubai, putting an end to a six-week hostage crisis that began with the abduction of the original group of 23 that was travelling 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 latest releases occurred a day 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 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.

[Christian Today correspondent Michelle Vu in Washington, USA contributed to this report]