Two South Koreans who were held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly a month returned home on Friday, creating hope that 19 other members of their group may soon be freed. The two women were released on Monday as South Korean officials engaged the Taliban in direct talks. Although negotiations have continued, the hostage situation remains at a standstill.
Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Gina, were released unconditionally as "a gesture of good faith" when the South Koreans began direct negotiations with the Taliban, reports Korea's Yonhap News Agency. Originally there were 23 hostages, but their captors killed two of the male hostages after kidnapping the group of Korean, Christian aid workers on July 19. The liberated hostages briefly addressed reporters at the airport, but did not take any questions.
"We are very sorry that we caused you to worry so much. Because of your help, we were able to be released, and we would like to heartily thank you," Kim Kyung-ja said after entering the entrance gate at the airport. "For now, we can do nothing but hope that the other people, who are still held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, get released soon."
"We are so obliged to you all for your concerns," Kim Gina said. "We are grateful that we were released."
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun issued a statement on Monday saying the government was "pleased" about the release of two hostages, but he called for early liberation of the rest, reports China's Xinhua News Agency. Although the Taliban reported that the women had beome ill, they could walk without assistance and did not seem to be in "critical condition."
The president instructed the government to do its utmost to secure the release of all the other hostages as soon as possible and reiterated that South Korea would maintain close cooperation with the Afghan government and international society to gain the release of the remaining hostages, the statement said.
These latest talks between Korean and Taliban officials were able to take place when the Afghan government assured the safety of the militant delegation. The Taliban is demanding a prisoner exchange of militant in exchange for the Koreans freedom. The South Korean government lacks the power to free any Taliban militants, so the hostages takers are hoping Korean officials will pressure Afghanistan officials to act in accordance with their demands. The Associated Press reports that, so far, no settlement has been reached.
The two sides talked for three hours on Thursday at the offices of Afghan Red Crescent in Ghazni. The International Committee of Red Cross helped facilitate the talks.
The Taliban delegation arrived several hours after the talks were scheduled to start, said Franz Rauchenstein, an ICRC official. There was no immediate explanation what caused the delay.
The Taliban left after the talks in ICRC vehicles, without speaking to reporters.
Waheedullah Mujaddid, the former head of the Afghan delegatation in earlier talks with the Taliban hostage takers, told The Korea Times that there has been "visible progress" and he believes that ultimately both sides will reach a "peaceful solution to the issue."
Speaking over the telephone from Ghazni Province, where the militants seized the hostages, Mujaddidi said the Taliban leadership also wanted an end to the crisis now. While acknowledging he was no longer part of the talks and could not comment with full confidence, he added he was sure of a peaceful outcome.
Although the main mediator between Taliban and the Korean delegations, Haji Muhammad Zahir, was not available, a source close to him said the talks may continue for another few days if the two sides failed to reach an agreement on Thursday or Friday.
Meanwhile, South Korean citizens continue to rally around the 19 remaining captives. Most recently, doctor and Buddhist musician Lee Jin-ho, wrote a song for the hostages entitled "Song for the Taliban." In the song Mr. Lee asks, "Why have to fight, why have to kill, make this heaven to hell? God! What he wants is peace of mankind," reports South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
The video clip of the song, which first appeared on the Korean UCC site Pandora TV, features pictures of pastor Bae Hyung-kyu and Shim Sung-min, two hostages killed by the Taliban. It also features pictures of surviving hostages, with the caption, "Song about the invisible wall between us". Tranquil guitar music accompanies Lee's voice. The clip also includes the English lyrics on sheets of paper written by Lee and Korean subtitles.
Despite continuing support from much of the population, a number of South Koreans remain critical of the hostages for entering Afghanistan in the first place. They say it was an unnecessary risk, reports the Voice of America.
However, there has also been strong South Korean criticism of the hostages themselves, who traveled to Afghanistan in defiance of a South Korean government ban. South Korea contributes several hundred non-combat personnel to U.S.-led international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan after three decades of conflict.