World and Nation

Taliban Frees the Last Seven South Koreans After Holding Direct Talks

The Taliban freed the seven remaining South Korean hostages in central Afghanistan on Thursday evening, Afghan officials announced, ending a six-week hostage crisis that had placed enormous political pressure on the South Korean government.

All of the hostages appeared to be in good condition, the officials said. But signs quickly emerged that South Korea’s decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban might have emboldened the group.

After the release of the Korean hostages, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said in a telephone interview that the Taliban wanted direct negotiations with the German government regarding a German engineer kidnapped by the group one day before the South Koreans’ abduction.

Ahmadi said German officials had refused to hold direct talks with the Taliban. “We haven’t decided the fate of the German,” he said. “No one is asking about him.”

The release of the South Koreans prompted journalists to ask German officials this week why they, too, had not begun direct negotiations with the Taliban. A spokesman for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that the German government was doing all it could to win the engineer’s release but that it would not be “blackmailed” by the Taliban.

The Taliban kidnapped 23 Koreans, who were working as Christian aid volunteers, on a highway in central Afghanistan last month. When the Afghan government refused a Taliban demand that Taliban prisoners be released in exchange for the South Koreans, the Taliban killed two men in the group. After a South Korean delegation held direct talks with the Taliban, the militants released two women as a sign of good will two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, the two sides announced that they had reached an agreement. The next day, the Taliban freed 12 of the remaining hostages, who had been held in small groups across central Afghanistan. All 19 of the freed hostages are expected to fly to South Korea together soon.

Under the agreement, South Korea reaffirmed a pledge to withdraw its 200 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, as previously planned, and agreed to prevent evangelical activities by South Korean churches in Afghanistan. The Taliban, for its part, dropped a demand that eight senior Taliban prisoners be released in exchange for the South Koreans.

There was continued speculation in Kabul that South Korea had paid a ransom for the release of the hostages. But South Korean and Taliban officials denied that any money was paid. Afghan officials have said that paying a ransom to the Taliban would only encourage them to kidnap more foreigners.

In Washington on Thursday, a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, welcomed the hostages’ release, The Associated Press reported. Asked if South Korea’s negotiations with the Taliban set a precedent, he said American government policy remained to “not to make concessions to terrorists.”