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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Hostages Get a Mixed Welcome

ANYANG, South Korea -- Nineteen South Korean Christian volunteers held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan for six weeks returned home to an uncomfortable welcome Sunday, thanking their government for saving them from death.

A senior Taliban leader said Seoul had paid $20 million for their release, but the South Korean government denied paying any ransom.

"We went to spread God's love and carry out his wishes," freed hostage Lyu Kyung-sik said after arriving. "All of us returned from being on verge of death and have been given our lives back."

The hostages -- heads bowed, looking somber and some fighting back tears -- stood behind Lyu as he made a brief statement at Incheon airport outside Seoul. He stood between framed pictures of the two hostages shot dead by the Taliban.

"All of us owe a big debt to the country and the South Korean people," Lyu said. "When thinking about the trouble we have caused them, it is proper for us to bow deeply and ask for your forgiveness."

The six-week standoff gripped the country, leading thousands to join candlelight vigils.

But many criticized the suburban Seoul Saemmul Church that sent the group as having a naive worldview and for putting their government in a bind.

Web sites of the country's main Protestant groups and largest Internet portals have been flooded with messages saying the group and church were to blame for ignoring government warnings and for making an ill-advised mission to an obvious danger spot.

The hostages were taken to a hospital in Anyang, south of Seoul, where many collapsed into the arms of waiting relatives, who cheered when the group entered a reception room. A few of the group, overcome by emotion, had to be carried out of the room.

The former hostages, mostly women, were then admitted for medical checks and kept away from the media.