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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taliban Release 12 Korean Hostages

QALA-E-KAZI, Afghanistan -- Taliban militants Wednesday released 12 of 19 South Korean captives they promised to free under a deal struck with the South Korean government to resolve a hostage crisis that began almost six weeks ago.

The deal, reached in direct talks Tuesday between South Korean diplomats and the Taliban, was criticized by one Afghan government minister amid concerns that it could embolden the insurgents at a time of rising violence in the country.

The hostages were released into the care of officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross at two separate locations in central Afghanistan close to the city of Ghazni.

The first group -- three women -- was released in the village of Qala-e-Kazi. Several hours later, four women and a man were released in a desert close to Shah Baz, a reporter who witnessed both handovers said.

None of the twelve said anything to reporters. The remaining hostages are expected to be freed over the next two days in a series of staggered releases.

The first three women arrived in Qala-E-Kazi in a single car, their heads covered with red and green shawls. Red Cross officials quickly took the three to their vehicles before leaving for the office of the Afghan Red Crescent in Ghazni, witnesses said.

Relatives of those released expressed relief that the ordeal was over.

"I talked to my parents on the phone and they cried and said '[our daughter] is coming back alive,'" said Lee Jung-hoon, the brother of one woman released Wednesday. "On the other side of my mind ... I strongly hope that the remaining hostages will safely come back soon as well," Lee said from South Korea.

In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong said the first three hostages released, whom he identified as Ahn Hye-jin, Lee Jung-ran and Han Ji-young, did not appear to have any health problems.

To secure the release of the church workers, South Korea reaffirmed a pledge it made well before the hostage crisis began to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Seoul also said it would prevent South Korean Christian missionaries from working in the country, something it had already promised to do.

The Taliban had been demanding the release of militant prisoners in exchange for freeing the hostages. Afghan officials had ruled out any exchange, saying such a move would only encourage further abductions.

An Afghan government minister criticized Seoul for negotiating with the Taliban and the terms of the deal.

"One has to say that this release under these conditions will make our difficulties in Afghanistan even bigger," the country's commerce minister, Amin Farhang, said in an interview with Germany's Bayerischer Rundfunk radio. "We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan."

The Taliban originally kidnapped 23 hostages as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on July 19. In late July, the militants executed two male hostages, and they released two women earlier this month.

The insurgents have said they will free all the hostages, whom they are holding in different locations, over the next few days.

The Tuesday deal was made in face-to-face talks between Taliban negotiators and South Korean diplomats in the central Afghan city of Ghazni.