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Two South Korean women kidnapped by the Taliban burst into tears 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 Monday was the first breakthrough in a drama that began more than three weeks ago when a busload of South 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 hard-line 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 comments occurred 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 US 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 8 kilometers 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 US military base in Ghazni, where American and Afghan soldiers blocked the road. US soldiers searched the women and then escorted them inside.
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," it said.
Elsewhere, a suicide bomber targeted a US-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 US 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.
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