INCHEON, South Korea – Nineteen South Koreans freed by Taliban insurgents after six weeks in captivity returned home on Sunday, expressing sorrow for two in their group who were killed in Afghanistan and apologizing to the nation.
The 19, let go in stages last week under a deal between the insurgents and the South Korean government, arrived on a flight from Dubai. The former hostages, appearing exhausted, stood before reporters and bowed.
"We are very sorry to the people and the government for causing concerns," said one of the former hostages, Yoo Kyung-shik. "We appreciate the Korean people for helping us to return to our families. We owe a big debt to the nation and people."
Yoo, fighting back tears, also expressed condolences to the families of the two who were killed. Their relatives, holding photos of their lost loved ones, also appeared with the hostages.
Yoo, one of two ex-hostages who spoke to reporters in Kabul last week, also asked South Koreans for patience.
"Please give us some time to recover and we will tell you everything," he said.
The group of 23 volunteers from a suburban Seoul church was abducted at gunpoint on July 19 while on their way to do aid work in the southern city of Kandahar.
The Taliban killed two men, one the church pastor, in the early stages of the crisis because, they said, their demand for the release of imprisoned fighters was not met.
Two female hostages were freed and returned last month after direct talks were launched with the South Korean government. The remaining South Koreans left Afghanistan Friday.
In their first media interviews Friday, the ex-hostages apologized for causing trouble and gave detailed accounts of a six-week ordeal that included death threats and a lack of food.
Public criticism of the hostages has been intense in South Korea, where many are angry because they went to Afghanistan despite government warnings that the country was unsafe.
Critics also say their "rash" trip sullied the country's international reputation by forcing their government to negotiate directly with the Taliban — a move widely seen in South Korea as a violation of international principles regarding contact with terrorists.
The hostages boarded a bus to a hospital, where they were to receive health checks and be reunited with family.