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Afghan Taleban Releases 12 South Korean Hostages

The Taleban has begun releasing 19 South Korean Christian volunteers, after holding them in Afghanistan for nearly six weeks. The militants have freed 12 hostages so far a day after South Korea made a series of concessions to end the hostage crisis. VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad.

The Taleban freed four women and one man hours after releasing a first group of three women. The hostages were handed over to tribal chiefs in southern Gazni province Wednesday and then to Red Cross officials.

Taleban officials said the rest would be freed shortly.

Provincial Governor Merajuddin Pattan told VOA he was confident the crisis was now over.

"Within three days the whole number will be released," he said.

In exchange, South Korea has agreed to end its military presence in Afghanistan by the end of this year, a move Seoul announced several months ago.

During face-to-face talks with the Taleban Tuesday, South Korean negotiators also pledged to stop Korean missionaries from traveling to Afghanistan.

Several Afghan politicians criticized the deal, saying it would only encourage more kidnappings. In Seoul, the presidential office defended itself against international criticism, saying it made no major concessions in return for the hostages' release.

But there is already mounting speculation that South Korea may have agreed to pay the Taleban a ransom. Both sides deny those reports.

In either case, analysts say the Taleban has gained significant political capital after holding direct talks with a foreign government and key U.S. ally.

Washington considers the Taleban a terrorist organization and both U.S. and Afghan authorities have refused to hold talks with the militant group.

But in South Korea the deal was praised by friends and families of hostages. Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, family spokesman Cha Sung Min hailed the end of the month-long crisis.

He says South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun and others who used every effort to free the hostages are jewels to the families involved.

The Taleban originally kidnapped 23 South Koreans as they traveled by bus through Ghazni Province. Militants executed two men a few days later. Two women were freed after a previous round of talks.

The hostage drama dominated attention in South Korea, where evangelical Christian groups have attracted millions of supporters. South Korean church leaders say they will honor the government's efforts to end missionary programs in Afghanistan.