Will the Korean Hostages Go Free?

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A South Korean government spokesman said Tuesday that Taliban and Korean delegates have negotiated a deal to release the 19 Korean hostages, Christian charity workers, who have been held hostage in Afghanistan since July. According to the spokesman, Taliban militants agreed to release the hostages if Seoul would honor its promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by year's end — the South Koreans had said they would withdraw about 200 military personnel from Afghanistan before the kidnapping occurred — and end missionary work in the Islamic country. Seoul has also acceded to the Taliban's demand for removal of all Korean NGO workers from Afghanistan. But the spokesman said that the Seoul government has not agreed to pay a ransom for the hostages, contrary to media reports last week, nor has it agreed to release Taliban prisoners.

But the governor of Ghazni Province, where the hostages are thought to be held, told TIME that no deal has been struck yet. "Negotiations are going on but nothing has been decided yet. There is no progress," said Mirajuddin Patan. "Rumors of [the hostages'] release are not true."

An Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to comment, and Taliban spokesmen were unreachable.

Twenty-three South Korean missionaries were taken hostage on July 19 when the Taliban intercepted their bus on a road some 90 miles south of the capital, Kabul. The road is known to be extremely dangerous and few foreigners risk driving it. Two male hostages were later killed and two female hostages have already been released.

Kidnappings have become more common in Afghanistan in the past year. A German engineer and four of his Afghan colleagues were kidnapped a day before the South Koreans. Earlier this month a German aid worker was kidnapped in broad daylight from outside a shop in the capital. She was freed in a police raid a few days later and government officials said her abduction was a criminal act likely motivated by money and not politics.

The South Korean government spokesman said Seoul does not know when the prisoners will be returned as it is expected to "take some time because of procedures."

Reported by Ali Safi/Kabul and Jennifer Veale/Seoul