JANDA, Afghanistan – Taliban militants released the last seven South Korean hostages held in Afghanistan on Thursday under a deal struck with Seoul, ending a six-week ordeal that the insurgents claimed as a "great victory for our holy warriors."
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi, however, said the insurgents would continue to abduct foreigners, underscoring fears that South Korea's decision to negotiate directly with the militants would embolden them.
"We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful," he told The Associated Press via mobile phone from an undisclosed location.
The seven hostages were released into the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross in two separate handovers close to the central Afghan city of Ghazni, Red Cross officials and an AP reporter said. None said anything to reporters.
The final three — two women and one man — were dropped off by armed men on a main road in Janda district after apparently walking through the desert for some distance. Covered in dust, they were quickly bundled into a Red Cross vehicle before being driven away.
The men accompanying the hostages gave an unsigned note to journalists accusing the South Koreans of trying to convert the staunchly Islamic country to Christianity.
"They came to our nation to change our faith," the handwritten note read. "The Afghan people have given their lives for their faith. This is the reason we arrested them."
The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages — all of whom belonged to a Presbyterian church close to Seoul — have insisted that they were not engaged in missionary activities, but were doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.
The identity of the armed men was not clear. The Taliban earlier said it had first handed the three hostages to tribal elders who would transfer them to the Red Cross. In Afghanistan, many villagers carry weapons.
On Wednesday, the Taliban released 12 other hostages in three separate drop-offs.
The Taliban abducted 23 South Korean church volunteers on July 19 as they traveled by bus along a dangerous road in southern Afghanistan. The militants killed two men soon after taking them, and released two women earlier this month in what they termed a "goodwill" gesture.
The crisis ended after a deal was struck Tuesday between Taliban commanders and representatives of the South Korean government, which has been under intense domestic pressure to bring the hostages home safely.
Under the terms of the agreement, Seoul repeated a pledge it had made long before July to withdraw its 200 troops deployed in Afghanistan before year's end and vowed to prevent missionaries traveling to the country. It first made that pledge soon after the captives were taken.
The Taliban apparently backed down from an earlier demand for a prisoner exchange.
While there was no sign that they extracted any other concessions, analysts say the Taliban emerged from the crisis with renewed political legitimacy because for the first time since their 2001 ouster they negotiated with a foreign government.
"Taliban now have diplomacy, they have got spokesmen, they value cameras, they have a political dimension for their movement, and their aim is to be recognized as legitimate," said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
South Korea has denied doing anything wrong, saying it was normal practice to negotiate with hostage takers.
The former captives were expected to fly back to South Korea by Sunday after health checks, officials have said.
Afghanistan has seen a spate of hostage takings this years, both of foreigner and locals.
The Taliban is still holding a German engineer and four Afghan colleagues kidnapped a day before the South Koreans.
The hostage crisis unfolded at a time of soaring violence in Afghanistan despite years of counterinsurgency operations by international troops and millions of dollars spent in equipping Afghan security forces.
Associated Press reporters Chris Brummitt and Raim Faiz contributed to this report from Kabul.
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