GHAZNI, Afghanistan – Taliban militants were expected to announce details Wednesday of the release of 19 South Koreans held hostage for six weeks after militants struck a deal with the Seoul government.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said late Tuesday that the South Koreans — mostly females in their 20s and 30s — would be freed "in the coming days" with the involvement of tribal elders, who would act as go-betweens. He gave no more details.
Taliban commander Mullah Basheer said the militants would say on Wednesday when and how the captives would be released. They are believed to be held in several different locations.
To secure the hostages' release, South Korea reaffirmed a pledge to withdraw its troops by year's end and prevent Christian missionaries from working in Afghanistan, officials said. The Taliban apparently backed down on earlier demands for a prisoner exchange.
The Tuesday deal was made in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in the central Afghan city of Ghazni. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 hostages as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on July 19. In late July, the militants executed two male hostages, and they released two women earlier this month.
Relatives of the hostages in South Korea, whose government has been under intense domestic pressure to win their safe release, welcomed news of the deal.
"I would like to dance," said Cho Myung-ho, mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo-yeon.
South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said from Seoul that 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.
Seoul has already said it would withdraw its 200 troops in the country by the end of the year and has also sought to prevent missionaries from traveling to countries where they were not wanted.
The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages have stressed that the South Koreans kidnapped in Afghanistan were not missionaries, but were rather doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.
The Taliban had been demanding the release of militant prisoners in exchange for the captives' freedom. Afghan officials had ruled out any exchange, saying such a move would only encourage further abductions.
Cha Sung-min, whose 32-year-old sister Cha Hye-jin was being held, said he was "sorry to the public for causing concern, but we thank the government officials for the release."
"Still, our hearts are broken as two died, so we convey our sympathy to the bereaved family members," said Cha, 31, who has served as a spokesman for the hostages' relatives.
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.