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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Taleban release S Korean hostages
Three South Korean kidnapped by the Taleban cover their faces after been released in Ghazni
These three women were the first to be freed on Wednesday
Taleban rebels in Afghanistan have released 12 South Koreans - 10 women and two men - out of a group of 19 hostages that they have been holding.

The hostages have been released in three groups throughout the day. They are said to be in good health.

The three women and one man from the latest group to be freed were said to be "hugely relieved" at their release.

The Taleban said the remaining seven hostages would be released soon. The group was initially seized in July.

The hostages were released with the mediation of tribal elders in separate locations.

The first two groups of hostages were handed over to officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross and were then taken to meet South Korean government officials in Ghazni.

Haji Zahir, a tribal elder who has been acting as a mediator, told the BBC he and two other elders had travelled to meet the Taleban and bring the first three women by car to Ghazni.

The second group of hostages was then released in the Shabaz area of Ghazni province, close to the village of Ghazni itself.

South Korean hostages held by Taleban (file photo)
The South Koreans were doing voluntary work in Afghanistan

The head of the Afghanistan branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the BBC that the third group was released late in the day in the same part of Ghazni province in which the Koreans were first kidnapped in mid July.

Earlier, Lee Jeong-hoon, whose sister Lee Ji-young was one of the first to be released, spoke of her feelings on hearing of the news.

"... I told my parents and they were crying and saying she's coming back alive. I was relieved, but I hope the remaining 16 hostages can return safely and healthy," she said.

Deal

The releases come a day after the South Korean government said it had reached a deal with the Taleban.

South Korea has agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as scheduled by the end of the year. It also said it would end all missionary work in the country and stop its citizens from travelling there.

Map of Afghanistan

There has been no mention of money being paid, but it is thought that a ransom may have been part of the deal, says the BBC's Alastair Leithead in Kabul.

The Taleban appear to have dropped their earlier demand that Taleban members be released from Afghan prisons in exchange for the hostages' freedom.

A Taleban representative, Mullah Basheer, said all 19 would be released "step by step" in the coming week.

"One of our main demands has not been accepted, but our other demands were welcomed. All of the Koreans will be released in less than a week."

Speaking in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government would not change its strategy in light of the release of the hostages.

One German national is still being held in Afghanistan. Another German national, who was kidnapped at the same time, died of a heart attack.

"The federal government is trying hard to obtain the release of the hostages we have in Afghanistan," Ms Merkel said.

"All necessary efforts are being made. In my view, the situation concerning the South Korean hostages will not change in the way we are dealing with it. We are, through the crisis committee, very much involved and engaged and making everything possible for the liberation of the hostages."

Hostages killed

The militants kidnapped 23 South Koreans on 19 July as they travelled by bus on the main Kandahar to Kabul highway.

They subsequently killed two male hostages and later freed two women following a first round of talks.

The hostages are thought to be held in several different locations in Ghazni province.

Some 200 South Korean non-combat personnel are deployed in the country to help with reconstruction efforts. Seoul had already decided, before the kidnap, to end the deployment.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Footage of some of the newly-released hostages



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