Taliban to free 19 South Korean hostages

( AP ) - Taliban militants agreed Tuesday to release 19 South Korean church volunteers held hostage for six weeks after Seoul reaffirmed a pledge to withdraw its troops by year's end and prevent Christian missionaries from working in Afghanistan.

As many as eight of the hostages could be freed on Wednesday, a Taliban representative said.

The militants apparently backed away from demands for a prisoner exchange. But the Taliban, who killed two South Korean hostages last month, could emerge with enhanced political legitimacy for negotiating successfully with a foreign government.

Also Tuesday, a suicide bomber attacked NATO troops helping build a bridge in eastern Afghanistan, killing three American soldiers, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because not all families had been notified. NATO, in announcing the attack, said six soldiers also were wounded.

The accord for the South Koreans' release came during one of the bloodiest periods of the Taliban's war against U.S. and NATO forces since the Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

South Korea's decision to hold face-to-face negotiations with the militants may dismay the United States government, which refuses to talk to the Taliban.

"Maybe they (the Taliban) did not achieve all that they demanded, but they achieved a lot in terms of political credibility," said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "The fact that the Koreans negotiated with them directly and more or less in their territory ... is in itself an achievement."

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Tuesday that the U.S. wanted the Koreans returned to their families and stressed that U.S. policy was not to make concessions to terrorists.

The Taliban kidnapped 23 Koreans as they traveled by bus from Kabul to Kandahar on July 19. The militants killed two male hostages in late July, then freed two women captives earlier this month.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi had said that the South Koreans - mostly women in their 20s and 30s - would be freed "in the coming days" and that tribal elders would act as go-betweens. The captives are believed to be held in several different locations, and Ahmadi said that it might take several days to free them all.

On Wednesday, Mullah Basheer, a Taliban commander involved in the talks, said the militants will "hopefully" free five to eight captives that day - including at least one man. He did not give further details.

The deal for the hostages' release was struck during talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in the central city of Ghazni. The Afghan government was not party to the negotiations, which were mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The hostages' relatives in South Korea welcomed news of the deal.

"I would like to dance," said Cho Myung-ho, mother of 28-year-old hostage Lee Joo-yeon.

South Korean presidential spokesman Cheon Ho-sun said the deal had been reached "on the condition that South Korea withdraws troops by the end of the year and South Korea suspends missionary work in Afghanistan."

Seoul already had said it would withdraw its 200 soldiers in the country this year. It also has sought to prevent missionaries from traveling to countries where they are not wanted.

The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages have stressed that the kidnapped South Koreans were not Christian missionaries, but were doing aid work.

Missionaries from South Korea and dozens of other countries have historically been active in Afghanistan, and there is no way of knowing how many are in the country. Most operate without the knowledge of their governments, and there is some disagreement about the boundaries between missionary work, proselytizing and Christian-inspired aid efforts.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, said he exerted "all possible efforts" as secretary-general to obtain the release of the hostages, talking to leaders in Afghanistan and the region who might have influence.

"I'm pleased to hear that news and I welcome that news that both the Korean government and Taliban representatives have agreed to release the remaining 19 hostages," he said. "At this time I do hope that they will be released as soon as possible."

Taliban spokesmen have insisted they had no interest in a ransom payment. The South Korean presidential spokesman, Cheon, told The Associated Press that he had been informed by South Korean officials in Afghanistan that money was not discussed with the Taliban.

Cha Sung-min, whose 32-year-old sister, Cha Hye-jin, was among the hostages, said he was "sorry to the public for causing concern, but we thank the government officials for the (impending) release."

"Still, our hearts are broken as two died, so we convey our sympathy to the bereaved family members," said Cha Sung-min, who has served as a spokesman for the hostages' relatives.

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