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Taliban free last 7 church workers

Call S. Korea deal a 'great victory'

JANDA, Afghanistan - Taliban militants released the last seven South Korean hostages yesterday under a deal with the government in Seoul, ending a six-week drama that the insurgents claimed as a "great victory for our holy warriors."

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi vowed to abduct more foreigners, reinforcing fears that South Korea's decision to negotiate directly with the militants would embolden them.

"We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful," he said by cellphone from an undisclosed location.

The seven hostages were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in two separate exchanges close to the central Afghan city of Ghazni. The freed hostages did not speak to reporters.

The final three released - two women and a man - were handed over by armed men on a main road in Janda district after apparently walking through the desert for some distance. Covered in dust, they were quickly bundled into a Red Cross vehicle and driven away.

The seven were part of a group of 23 church volunteers who were abducted on July 19 as they traveled by bus along a dangerous road in southern Afghanistan. The militants killed two men soon after taking them, and released two women earlier this month in what they termed a "good-will" gesture. On Wednesday, the Taliban released the 12 other hostages.

The men accompanying the last hostages freed gave an unsigned note to journalists accusing the South Koreans of coming to Afghanistan on a mission to convert the staunchly Islamic country to Christianity.

The South Korean government and relatives of the hostages - all of whom belonged to a Presbyterian church close to Seoul - have insisted they were not engaged in missionary activities but were doing aid work such as helping in hospitals.

The identity of the armed men was not clear. The Taliban said earlier they had handed the three hostages to tribal elders who would transfer them to the Red Cross and in Afghanistan, many villagers carry weapons.

The crisis ended under a deal struck Tuesday between Taliban commanders and representatives of the South Korean government, which has been under intense domestic pressure to bring the hostages home safely.

Under the terms of the agreement, Seoul repeated a pledge it had made long before the kidnappings to withdraw its 200 troops in Afghanistan before year's end and vowed to prevent missionaries traveling to the country.

The Taliban apparently backed down from an earlier demand for a prisoner exchange.

The freed hostages were expected to fly back to South Korea by Sunday after health checks.

In Washington, the State Department welcomed the hostages' release.

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