Taliban free two from kidnapped volunteers
GHAZNI, Afghanistan – Two South Korean women kidnapped by the Taliban burst into tears Monday after being turned over to the Red Cross on a desert road where the body of one of the original 23 hostages was dumped.The women’s release was the first breakthrough in a drama that began more than three weeks ago when a busload of Korean church volunteers was seized. A second male captive also was shot to death in late July, meaning 14 women and five men are still being held.The handover came after two days of face-to-face talks between the Taliban and a South Korean delegation. A spokesman for the hardline Islamic militants said the group released the women as a show of good will during negotiations that he said were going well.The spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, also reiterated the militants’ demand that Taliban prisoners be released in exchange for the remaining 19 hostages. The Afghan government has ruled out any prisoner swap.A few hours later, a German engineer kidnapped last month said in a telephone conversation orchestrated by his captors that he was ill and had been threatened with death.The man identified himself as Rudolf Blechschmidt and spoke stiffly and with frequent pauses, as though reading from prepared remarks. The talk came about when the hostage takers phoned an Associated Press reporter and unexpectedly put Blechschmidt on the line.In recent weeks, the Taliban have offered interviews with foreign hostages, apparently hoping to pressure the Afghan and U.S. governments into freeing Taliban prisoners. The hostages’ comments are controlled by the captors and their statements are made in that context.A Taliban spokesman has claimed the group kidnapped Blechschmidt and a colleague July 18 and threatened to kill them unless Germany withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. Afghan officials, however, have suggested the men were taken by an unaffiliated criminal group.The second engineer, Ruediger Diedrich, was found dead of gunshot wounds July 21.Journalists were kept away from the freed Korean women, whom the South Korean Foreign Ministry identified as Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Ji-na. Previous media reports said they were 37 and 32 years old.Officials from the International Red Cross waited in SUVs for the women on a stretch of desert five miles south of the city of Ghazni. When a dark gray Toyota Corolla stopped, the two women got out of the back seat and began crying.Wearing head scarves, khaki pants and traditional Afghan knee-length shirts, the women were driven to the site by an Afghan elder, Haji Zahir, who also got into one of the Red Cross vehicles with the freed hostages.Inside the SUV, a worker patted one woman on the back and put her head against his chest as she cried.A convoy carried the women to the U.S. military base in Ghazni, where American and Afghan soldiers blocked the road. U.S. soldiers searched the women and then escorted them inside.Their release was the first big break in a drama that began July 19 when the 23 church volunteers were captured while traveling by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.The Taliban have been demanding freedom for 21 militants held by the Afghan government and the U.S. military at its base at Bagram. The government has said it won’t release any prisoners out of fear that would encourage more kidnappings.Seth Jones, a counterinsurgency expert at the RAND Corp. think tank, said the Taliban’s hostage-taking is meant to send messages to two different audiences.First, the Taliban want to demonstrate to Afghans that they are committed to “fight the international presence in Afghanistan and establish a pure, Islamic state,” he said. Taking Christian hostages “demonstrates that they’re able to do this – they’ve captured nonbelievers and punished them.”The second goal is to coerce foreign governments and organizations to end involvement in Afghanistan, focusing attacks on aid groups and reconstruction projects, Jones said. “The message this sends is” ‘You get into the rural areas, it’s dangerous, so don’t come.”‘But he added that while killing all hostages might send a stronger signal to foreigners, the Taliban know Afghans would view that as extreme, especially since some of the hostages are women.Ali Jalali, a professor at the National Defense University, said the Taliban is also seeking to undermine the Afghan government by creating a sense of insecurity.At the same time, Jalali said, the Taliban is gaining status by negotiating directly with South Korean officials.Jones, however, said he did not think the talks lent the Taliban any more legitimacy than they already have in parts of Afghanistan. “They are the most powerful insurgency group. They did run the country,” he said. “The only way to deal with them is to meet with them.”The office of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said the country was “pleased” at the women’s release.”The government will spare no efforts for the quick and safe return of all our remaining people while closely cooperating with the Afghan government and the international community in the future,” Roh’s office said.Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, said the insurgent group decided to free the two Koreans “for the sake of good relations between the Korean people and the Taliban.””We are expecting the Korean people and government to force the Kabul administration and the U.S. to take a step toward releasing Taliban prisoners,” Ahmadi said by telephone from an undisclosed location.Ghazni Gov. Marajudin Pathan, who in the past has suggested the hostage standoff could be solved with a ransom payment, ruled out a prisoner swap. “Our position is the same: We are not releasing” any Taliban prisoners, he told reporters.The two women were let go after talks Friday and Saturday in Ghazni between two Taliban leaders and four South Korean officials. Ahmadi said that while talks continued, the remaining hostages would be safe.”During these negotiations, there will no threats to the other Korean hostages. We are waiting for the result of these negotiations. After the negotiations, the Taliban leadership will make a decision about these 19 Korean hostages,” he said.Elsewhere, a suicide bomber targeted a U.S.-led coalition convoy in eastern Afghanistan.The blast in Khost province killed the bomber, said Gen. Mohammad Ayub, the provincial police chief, but there were no immediate reports of casualties among the U.S. forces.In the south, Afghan police and soldiers thwarted an attack on a district chief’s compound in fighting that killed nine militants, provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqib said. A roadside bomb later hit a police vehicle in the same district, killing five officers and wounding two, Saqib said.A surge in fighting has killed more than 3,700 people this year, most of them insurgents, according to an AP tally of casualty figures provided by Western and Afghan officials.—Associated Press writer Noor Khan in Khandahar contributed to this report.
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