Ex-hostages say they were given gift of life

SEOUL (AFP) – Nineteen South Korean former hostages who spent six weeks under threat of death from Afghanistan’s Taliban arrived home Sunday, saying they felt as if they had died and then got their lives back.The former captives had tearful reunions with their families at a hospital outside Seoul before undergoing medical checks.

“We apologise to the people for causing trouble and thank everyone who helped us return home safely,” the spokesman for the Christian aid workers told reporters at Incheon airport after a drama which had gripped the country.

“We owe the country and the people a great debt,” said Yu Kyeong-Sik.

“We had basically died and have got our lives back. We plan to live in a way that will make you proud, and we promise that to you and we will repay our debt.”

Guerrillas posing as passengers abducted 16 women and seven men on July 19 from their bus in insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan.

The insurgents murdered two men last month to press their demands to exchange the Koreans for Taliban prisoners, a condition firmly rejected by the Kabul government.

After starting talks in Afghanistan with Seoul representatives, the Taliban on August 13 released two women in what they called a “goodwill gesture” and finally freed the remainder last Wednesday and Thursday.

It was only then that the 19 learnt of the two killings.

“When we heard about that, all of us were unable to recover from that,” said Yu, 55. “We ask that you give us a little bit of time and space and once we are able to rest we will explain everything in detail.”

Some of the women in the group sobbed as he spoke to journalists.

“Having my two children back today, I cannot but thank the people,” Suh Jeong-Bae who had had his son and daughter altogether held by the Taliban, said in a big smile during the family reunion.

The South Korean government, powerless to meet demands for a prisoner release, finally reached a deal with the help of an Indonesian diplomat.

It agreed to go ahead with a previously scheduled withdrawal of its 210 non-combat troops from Afghanistan by year-end, and to ban its missionaries from visiting the Islamic nation.

Despite several media reports that a ransom was paid, the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service — who was in Afghanistan personally overseeing the discussions — denied making payments to the Taliban when he returned with the group.

“There was no such deal,” Kim Man-Bok told reporters.

“I thank the public for their support. I am sorry for having failed to rescue all 23 kidnapped people,” Kim said.

“I hope that the government and the public make efforts that this kind of incident will not happen again.”

While Seoul apparently made no major concessions to the Taliban, the deal came in for criticism from the Afghan and Canadian foreign ministers for appearing to give the insurgents legitimacy.

Korean media generally said the government had no choice but to negotiate with the extremists, but added this could damage the country’s image.

“The government struggled to strike a balance between the international norms and custom concerning this kind of issue and the absolute premise that we have to save the people’s lives,” Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon said Saturday.

“The international community will understand it well.”

Now that the hostages are free, the Saem-Mul Presbyterian church at Bundang on the outskirts of Seoul has also come in for strong public criticism for organizing what was seen as a reckless trip.

The group ignored foreign ministry warnings against travel to Afghanistan, where more than 1,000 South Korean Christians were deported en masse last year because of security concerns.

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