KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Taliban kidnappers freed two South Korean female hostages yesterday, a move the fundamentalist militants described as a gesture of good will while they negotiate the fate of the 19 other Christian aid workers they still hold.
The two women were released into the custody of Afghan elders and then handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in a rural roadside exchange just west of Ghazni province, where they were abducted while traveling with a group of 23 South Korean volunteers July 19.
The Taliban have killed two male hostages, including the leader of the church group. They continue to hold 16 women and three men.
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.
Both women released today had reportedly been ill, with their conditions earlier said to be life-threatening, according to a purported Taliban spokesman. But both were well enough to walk from the vehicle driven by an Afghan elder to the waiting Red Cross SUV. The women said nothing to the reporters on the scene, who were told by a Taliban spokesman where the handoff would take place.
"The two female Koreans were released by the Taliban, first because both were sick, and second, this was the positive results of the negotiations between Taliban and Korean delegations," Ghazni Gov. Mijardden Patan said in a telephone interview.
The Taliban 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.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry identified the freed women as Kim Ji-na, 32, and Kim Kyong-ja, 37. The government said they would undergo medical checkups by a South Korean military unit stationed at the Bagram air base, near Kabul, before returning to Seoul as soon as possible.
Patan insisted that no deal had been made for the release of the hostages. South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said his government was "moving to win the rest of our citizens held hostage through various means," according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The Taliban have demanded trading the South Korean captives for an equal number of their captured fighters. That has been rejected by the Afghan government, which in March came under criticism for swapping five Taliban prisoners for a kidnapped Italian journalist.
Since the two male hostages were killed last month, the South Korean government has been under intense pressure to rescue the 21 remaining South Koreans, most of them are women in their 20s and 30s. Face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives began over the weekend.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently reiterated that such exchanges would only encourage more kidnappings.
M. Karim Faiez and Bruce Wallace write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.