Two freed Korean hostages plea for 19 detained friends

SEOUL, South Korea — Thin and weary from nearly a month in captivity at the hands of Taliban militants, two female South Korean hostages are pleading with their former captors to release their 19 colleagues. The two hostages made their first public statements Aug. 23, 10 days after their brokered release in Afghanistan.

The two women, Kim Jee-na, 32, and Kim Kyung-ja, 37, were part of a group of 23 Christian church workers who entered Afghanistan to do aid work in the war-torn country.

According to the Asian news service Yonhap, a government official who accompanied the two from New Delhi to Seoul said the hostages did not know they were being released until the actual handover along an isolated highway.

"As they moved frequently during the captivity, they were thinking that the Taliban were taking them to another place, not noticing they would be released," the official said.

The women arrived in Korea Aug. 23 after receiving medical treatment in Afghanistan. The pair was reunited with their families before being escorted to a military hospital in Korea as they try to recover from their ordeal.

"When we were released, rather than being happy, my heart was breaking as I thought about the 19 others," Kim Kyung-ja, said while fighting back tears, Associated Press reported.

The young women also pleaded for their quick release.

"From what I've heard, Islam teaches respect for life and for family," AP quoted Kim Jee-na as saying, adding that her heart was "aching for the people who remain." The South Korean church group, which insists it was not evangelizing, was traveling by bus when Taliban militants took them hostage July 19 in an effort to force the release of up to two dozen Taliban prisoners. The Taliban officials released the two women in what was described as a "goodwill gesture" after negotiations between them and a Korean delegation had progressed.

Negotiations broke down several days after their release, however. South Korean officials said they have repeatedly told the Taliban that the fate of the prisoners was controlled by Afghanistan and United States authorities. Leaders of both those countries have indicated they will not respond to the Taliban demands.

The aid workers said they were treated well, but were cut-off from the rest of the world. As a result, the government officials said they were devastated to discover that two of their male colleagues, whom the women thought were safe after being released, were actually executed by the Taliban.

The Rev. Bae Hyung-kyu, who was leading the group, and Shim Sung-min were killed July 25 and 30, respectively.

"They did not know of the deaths of Rev. Bae and Shim, even when they were moved to a U.S. Air Force base in Bagram," the government official said. "They learned the fact on Thursday and were shocked. They cried about 30 minutes. They showed symptoms of anorexia, mental anxiety and have not smiled at all since then."

During their first public interview, Kim Jee-na indicated to Al-Jazeera TV that she was distressed about the ordeal.

"Since returning home, it's been impossible for me to sleep even one night peacefully," she told the Arab news station.

In a particularly moving revelation, remaining hostage Lee Ji-young was originally selected as one of the two women to be freed, but she gave up her freedom to remain with the others because she has the most experience with the Afghanistan language and culture.

According to various news services, the Taliban allowed Lee to write a letter to her family, which the freed hostages delivered to her mother.

"I'm faring well and am healthy," Lee wrote. "Don't worry. I'm eating well and am OK. Don't get sick and please be OK," AP reported.