GHAZNI, Afghanistan – Two South Korean women kidnapped by the Taliban burst into tears Monday after being released into Red Cross custody on a desert road where one of the original 23 hostages kidnapped in mid-July was dumped after being shot and killed.
The women's release was the first significant breakthrough in a hostage drama now more than three weeks old and came after two days of face-to-face talks between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation. Two male captives were executed by gunfire in late July. Fourteen women and five men are still being held.
A spokesman for the hardline militants said they released the women as a show of goodwill and because negotiations were going well. Qari Yousef Ahmadi also reiterated the militants' demand that Taliban prisoners be released in exchange for the remaining 19 hostages. The Afghan government has ruled out any prisoner swap.
Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross waited for the Koreans on a stretch of desert road 5 miles south of the city of Ghazni. When a dark gray Toyota Corolla stopped, two women got out of the back seat and began crying at the sight of the waiting Red Cross SUVs.
Wearing scarves on their heads, khaki trousers and traditional Afghan knee-length shirts, the women had been driven by an Afghan elder named Haji Zahir, who also got into the Red Cross vehicle with the freed hostages.
Inside the Red Cross SUV, a worker patted one woman on the back and put her head against his chest as she cried.
A convoy carried the women to the U.S. base in Ghazni city, where American and Afghan soldiers blocked the road. The women got out of the car, U.S. soldiers searched them and then escorted them inside.
Their release marked the first big break in a hostage drama that began July 19 when the group of 23 church volunteers were captured while traveling by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The South Korean president's office said the government and the public were "pleased" at the women's safe release, and President Roh Moo-hyun instructed officials "to make every effort to ensure that other captives are safely released soon."
"The government will spare no efforts for the quick and safe return of all our remaining people while closely cooperating with the Afghan government and the international community in the future," Roh's office said.
The Taliban decided to release the two Koreans "for the sake of good relations between the Korean people and the Taliban," said Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the insurgent group.
"We are expecting the Korean people and government to force the Kabul administration and the U.S. to take a step toward releasing Taliban prisoners," Ahmadi said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Ghazni Gov. Marajudin Pathan, who in the past has suggested the hostage standoff could be solved with a ransom payment, ruled out a prisoner swap.
"Our position is the same, we are not releasing (any Taliban prisoners)," Pathan told reporters.
The Taliban have been demanding the release of 21 militant prisoners being held in jails by the Afghan government and U.S. military at the base at Bagram. The government has said it won't release any prisoners out of fear that kidnapping could become an industry in Afghanistan.
The South Korean government said the women were under protection in a safe location. They likely would be flown from the U.S. base at Ghazni to the base at Bagram, where South Korea runs a hospital.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry identified the freed hostages as Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Ji-na. Previous media reports said they were 37 and 32 years old, respectively.
The release comes after face-to-face talks Friday and Saturday in Ghazni between two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials.
Ahmadi said that while talks continue, the remaining hostages will be safe.
"During these negotiations, there will no threats to the other Korean hostages. We are waiting for the result of these negotiations. After the negotiations, the Taliban leadership will make a decision about these 19 Korean hostages," he said.
Also Monday, a German held hostage in Afghanistan by the Taliban said in a telephone conversation that he was in ill health and that his captors had threatened him with death.
The man identified himself as Rudolf Blechschmidt and asked that the message be delivered to the German embassy and to his son, Markus. He spoke stiffly and with frequent pauses, as though reading from prepared remarks.
The conversation was the first confirmation that Blechschmidt was still alive.
Blechschmidt is one of two German engineers taken hostage on July 18 in Wardak province. He previously been identified in German media only as Rudolf B. The other man, Ruediger Diedrich, 43, was found dead of gunshot wounds on July 21.
The telephone call came about when suspected Taliban militants phoned an Associated Press reporter Monday and unexpectedly put Blechschmidt on the line.
"I live with Taliban in the mountain. I'm in very dangerous and I'm very sick," the hostage said or read in broken English. "Taliban want to kill me."
He asked that the Afghan and German governments to try to resolve the issue, saying the Taliban wanted to speak with Afghan officials in Kabul.
Separately, a suicide bomber targeted a U.S.-led coalition convoy in eastern Afghanistan.
The blast in Khost province killed the bomber, said Gen. Mohammad Ayub, the provincial police chief. There were no immediate reports of casualties among the U.S. forces.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said they were aware of a car bomb in the east but did not have further details.
In the south, Afghan police and army soldiers battled militants Sunday in Kandahar province's Shohrawak district, said provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqib.
The joint Afghan forces thwarted a planned militant ambush at the district chief's compound, and the ensuing clash left nine militants dead, Saqib said. Authorities recovered the militants' bodies and weapons, he said.
During a cleanup operation after the battle, a roadside bomb hit a police vehicle in the same district, killing five officers and wounding two others, Saqib said.
Violence in Afghanistan has risen sharply during the last two months. More than 3,700 people, mostly militants, have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of casualty figures provided by Western and Afghan officials.