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Last Updated: Friday, 31 August 2007, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
S Korea denies hostage payments
A female South Korean hostage is supported by a Red Cross worker
The hostages are expected to travel home this weekend
South Korea has denied rumours it paid a multi-million dollar ransom for the release of 19 hostages in Afghanistan.

A presidential spokesman rejected claims by some Afghan officials that a secret financial deal had been reached.

Seoul has said it agreed to pull its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and stop any more Christian missionaries travelling to Afghanistan.

The 19 hostages, freed on Wednesday and Thursday after a six-week ordeal, left Kabul for Dubai on Friday.

Witnesses at Kabul airport said the South Koreans looked pale but healthy. The group is expected to fly on to Seoul soon.

Two women, from the original group of 23 Christian church workers, were freed earlier in the month. Two men were killed soon after the kidnapping.

Mixed reactions

The ransom allegations have been made by a number of Afghan officials in recent days. Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper quoted one Afghan mediation source as saying the sum was $2m (1m).

A spokesman for South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun tried to dampen the rumours on Friday when asked if cash had been paid.

HOSTAGE TIMELINE
19 July: 23 South Korean Christian volunteer aid workers seized on a bus between Kabul and Kandahar
26 July: One male hostage shot dead - identified as Bae Hyung-kyu, 42, a church pastor and leader of the group
31 July: Another male hostage, Shim Sung-min, a 29-year-old former IT worker, found dead
10 August: South Korean officials and Taleban start talks
14 August: Two female hostages handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross as a goodwill gesture - leaving 19
29 August: 12 more hostages released - leaving seven
30 August: All remaining hostages released

"There is no secret agreement with the Taleban other than the already announced conditions for the hostage release," Cheon Ho-seon said in his daily media briefing.

On Tuesday, South Korea announced it had agreed to withdraw its 200 troops from Afghanistan - as previously scheduled - by the end of the year and ban Christian missionaries from travelling to the country.

The Taleban - who appeared to have dropped their earlier demand for a prisoner exchange - have repeatedly denied receiving any money over the hostage release.

The group can expect a mixed reaction upon their return to Seoul.

While people in South Korea have welcomed their release, there has been some disquiet about the deal the government made to secure it and the presence of the hostages in Afghanistan in the first place.

The church has insisted the hostages - who were seized as they travelled by bus on the main highway from Kandahar to Kabul. on 19 July - had been doing aid work and were not involved in missionary activities.

But many are angry that they ignored the safety warnings of their own government, with much of the criticism levelled at the hostages' church in the suburbs of Seoul.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Families celebrate release of the hostages



SEE ALSO
Taleban free all Korean hostages
30 Aug 07 |  South Asia
In pictures: S Korea hostage release
30 Aug 07 |  In Pictures
S Koreans rethink missionary work
29 Aug 07 |  South Asia
S Korea press wary of hostage deal
30 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea outrage at hostage killing
26 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Koreans react to hostage killings
31 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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