Deal reached to release all hostages
Korean government agrees to pull troops out and stop all missionary work in Afghanistan
| Family members of hostages celebrate at Saemmul Church in Bundang last night after the Blue House announced the Taliban had agreed to release all 19 remaining hostages. |
As family members of the hostages burst into tears and applause, the Blue House announced last night that the Taliban and Seoul had agreed in principle on the release of all 19 remaining South Koreans being held in Afghanistan.
Bringing an end to a 41-day ordeal, “the agreement was reached on the condition that South Korea withdraw all of its troops within the year and cease all missionary work in Afghanistan,” Blue House spokesman Cheon Ho-seon announced.
Nevertheless, Seoul didn’t release any details on how or when the hostages would return home. “The government will take all necessary measures so the hostages can be safely home soon,” Cheon said.
In the basement of Saemmul Church in Bundang, Gyeonggi, as Cheon’s voice came out from the speakers, Seo Jeong-bae, 57, and Lee Hyeon-ja, 54, parents of hostages Seo Myeong-hwa and Seo Gyeong-seok, 29 and 27 respectively, held their hands together.
They couldn’t say a word.
Approximately 20 family members gathered last night. The hostages, mostly volunteers from the church, were taken July 19.
“Thank you for helping my daughter return,” Gwak Ok-gyeong, the mother of Yu Jeong-hwa, told reporters at the site.
|International Red Cross vehicles carry Taliban representatives yesterday to their meeting in Afghanistan with South Korean representatives. [YONHAP], [AP]|
“It is as if a dead child is coming back to life,” said Lee Hyeon-ja. “We don’t know how we can thank the people and the government of Korea.”
Cheon, the Blue House spokesman, said the decision was reached in a meeting yesterday between Seoul officials and the kidnappers that lasted less than two hours. It took place at the Red Crescent office in the town of Ghazni, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Kabul.
Cheon expressed his thanks to the international community and the Afghan government for helping South Korea.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi confirmed yesterday the release to The Associated Press, saying the two sides “had reached an agreement.”
Citing Taliban commander Mullah Nasrullah, a Taliban negotiator who took part in earlier negotiations, Yonhap News Agency reported that due to “technical difficulties” the hostages would be released in groups of three to four ― not in a single day, but spread out over several days.
A key tribal elder involved in the negotiations told Agence France-Presse that the Taliban will free the hostages in three to four days.
Apart from what the Blue House revealed as the release conditions, the Pajhwok Afghan News had more details on the agreement, citing Qari Bashir, a Taliban member who participated in the talks.
Koreans working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Afghanistan will leave the country by the end of the current month; no more Christian missionaries from the country will enter Afghanistan; the Koreans will not be attacked while leaving the war-torn country; and the Taliban have forgone their demand for the release of militants detained by the Afghan government, according to the report.
About 200 South Korean troops deployed in Afghanistan were scheduled to end their mission by the end of the year and Seoul put a travel ban to Afghanistan in place at the beginning of this month.
An official with the Defense Ministry said yesterday that a pullout of South Korean troops a little bit early would “pose no problem.” If released, the hostages are expected to undergo a medical examination at a South Korean military base in Bagram and then be flown back to Seoul.
Face-to-face talks between South Korea and the Taliban started two weeks ago.
The following day, the two sides agreed on the release of two female hostages who are currently hospitalized at a military hospital here.
Before that, the Taliban killed two other male hostages and threatened to kill more hostages if their demands were not met.
A key demand was a Taliban prisoner swap for the hostages, something Kabul and Washington had ruled out, saying they would not negotiate with terrorists.
Observers have said that the possibility of a ransom deal was high, in the form of Seoul providing financial support to local tribes supporting the Taliban.
Some family members still couldn’t believe the news. They checked the television and the chyron script over and over again. Some of them were busy receiving congratulatory calls.
People from Saemmul Church, where the hostages are also members, got together after meeting at the church last night to pray for the return of the hostages.
“Indescribable,” said Lee Jong-seok, the brother of Lee Ji-young. “I am tired, but my sister and all the others will also be exhausted.”
Lee wanted his sister to do nothing, but forget about the experience in Afghanistan. “The returning hostages must stay in hospitals and rest. I hope everything can be back as it used to be.” He thanked the people of Korea, the government and all the others who helped bring about their return. “I haven’t thought of it yet, but if Ji-young wants to go on her missionary work again, we don’t know whether we can stop her or not.”
By Brian Lee, Hwang Young-jin Staff Writers/ Chun In-sung JoongAng Ilbo