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Taleban Says it Released Two South Korean Hostages

11 August 2007

Taleban insurgents say they have released two of the 21 remaining South Korean hostages they kidnapped more than three weeks ago. The word came as the insurgents completed a second day of face-to-face talks with South Korean officials in Afghanistan. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Kabul.

Taleban leaders say the two women were both sick and have been freed as a gesture of good will.

But there is still no independent verification of the Taleban's claims. Government officials say they have not seen the two women yet but hope they have been released.

The apparent breakthrough comes as Taleban and South Korean officials complete their second day of face-to-face talks in the Afghan city of Ghazni.

Taleban insurgents kidnapped 23 South Koreans on July 19 as the group of Christian volunteers drove through the wartorn province.

Two of the South Koreans have already been executed, and insurgents have said they will kill more unless the government frees a number of pro-Taleban prisoners.

So far the government has refused to consider an exchange.

Afghan Interior Ministry Spokesman Zemarai Bashary says the government is providing security for the talks in Ghazni, but is not directly involved.

"I cannot go into too many details about the issue [but] this much I can say: Afghan representatives were not in that meeting," he said.

Provincial governor Merajuddin Pattan says the government did offer Taleban leaders safe passage to attend the negotiations and remains committed to supporting the South Korean initiative.

"We told them that we would guarantee the negotiation process and that there would be no operation against them until this dilemma is solved," he said.

Four South Korean delegates and two Taleban leaders are involved in the talks, which started Friday evening in a heavily guarded Afghan Red Crescent office.

The insurgents have said all along that they would kill the hostages, most of whom are women, unless the government frees a number of pro-Taleban prisoners.

The Afghan government has said from the start it would not exchange prisoners for hostages, and it is not clear if the South Korean negotiators can promise the release of any Taleban.

However, Afghan authorities in touch with the Taleban say the militants are also seeking a ransom payment.

In an incident earlier this year, Afghanistan released five top Taleban prisoners in exchange for an Italian journalist being held hostage.

There was widespread criticism of that agreement, by U.S. officials among others, who argued that it would only provoke more kidnappings in the future.

South Korea, however, has pleaded for greater flexibility, and has sought U.S. support for the effort to free the 21 remaining hostages.

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