SKorean hostages taste freedom but fears over others

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (AFP) – Two South Korean women freed by Afghanistan’s Taliban began Tuesday to make the long journey home, where their families spoke of their joy but worried over the fate of 19 other

Pale, tearful and clutching Muslim headscarves, the women were handed over to international aid agency officials near the southern Afghan town of Ghazni late Monday and sped off to waiting South Korean representatives.

The pair — Kim Gin-A, 32, and Kim Kyung-Ja, 37 — were at a safe place, a South Korean embassy spokesman told AFP under cover of anonymity. Details for their departure from Afghanistan had not been finalised.

A South Korean foreign ministry official who did not want to be named said they would have a medical check-up at the Bagram military base north of Kabul before being flown home.

Since the mass kidnapping, families had gathered in a basement room at the Saem-Mul Church on the outskirts of Seoul to help each other cope.

“I feel relieved but at the same time I have a heavy heart because of the other hostages who are still in captivity,” Kim Ji-Ung, brother of Kim Gin-A, said there.

“We will stick together until all of them are freed.”

For their mother Seon Yeon-Ja, 60, initial joy was marred by sadness. “Two have come back home dead and others are still there. I feel really sad for the other hostages.”

The Taliban abducted the 23-member Christian aid group, including 16 women, on July 19 as they were travelling by bus through insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan.

The insurgents killed two of the men to press their demand for the release of jailed colleagues — a demand refused by the Kabul government.

The women had been reported by their captors to be seriously ill, but one told AFP in a brief phone conversation that “We are OK.”

The Taliban called the release of the two women a “gesture of goodwill” on the fourth day of direct talks with South Korean officials.

“The talks will continue,” Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said, though he repeated that the militant group want Taliban prisoners in Afghan jails to be released in return for the remaining captives.

Authorities have rejected the demand, even after the hardline Islamic group killed a 29-year-old teacher and a 42-year-old pastor who was leading the aid mission.

“As we freed two sick female hostages as a gesture of goodwill we hope that the Afghan government will also free our prisoners,” Ahmadi told AFP.

Ghazni governor Mirajuddin Pattan told reporters there had been no ransom paid for the two and there would be none for the others.

He demanded the Taliban “immediately and unconditionally free the rest of the hostages,” a call echoed by the governments of South Korea and the United States.

Holding women was against the tenets of Islam, he added, referring to the remaining 14 female captives.

The South Korean embassy also stressed it wanted talks to continue on the others — said to have been split into groups — and said it had established good channels of communication with the Taliban.

The talks are being held at the offices of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Ghazni, a town 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of Kabul.

But there was fresh concern for a man who identified himself as a German national abducted a day before the South Koreans, who told AFP in a telephone call Monday arranged by the Taliban that his captors wanted to kill him.

Giving his name as Rudolph Blechschmidt, he said he was ill and appealed to the German government to help secure his freedom.

“The Taliban want to kill me,” he said, speaking in broken English. “I live with Taliban in the mountains. I am in danger also, and I am very sick.”

It was not possible to independently confirm his identity.

A German reported to be Rudolph Blechschmidt, a 62-year-old engineer, was seized July 18 with a German colleague.

The other German collapsed a few days later and was then shot dead by his captors.

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