Taliban Claim: Korea Paid Ransom

Five months after the release of the 21 surviving South Korean hostages who had been captured by the Taliban in July, Afghan insurgents are claiming that Seoul paid a hefty ransom for the Christian missionaries' freedom. In an interview in this week's edition of Afaq, a Pashtu-language magazine published in neighboring Pakistan, senior Taliban leader Ustad Yasir confirmed that a large ransom indeed had been paid. "If we were going to free them without any payment, [the hostage taking] would not have been worth it," he said. "The best way to release them was with a ransom payment." Two hostages were executed before the others were released.

Another senior Taliban commander, who would only speak on condition of anonymity for security purposes, tells NEWSWEEK that the South Korean government paid at least $4 million for the missionaries' release and that it delivered the cash to the insurgents in the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta. The commander said the Taliban were aware that U.S. and Afghan intelligence were closely watching the hostage negotiations that were taking place between South Korean and Taliban officials inside the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Ghazni province and decided to outsmart them. "It was funny," said the Taliban official, "the intelligence agencies were watching for a transfer of money to us in a Red Cross car in the province." So the Taliban arranged for the secret payoff in Quetta.

Another Taliban official in Ghazni, who asked for anonymity for similar reasons, tells NEWSWEEK that 35 percent of the money went to fund local insurgent operations in the province and that the rest went to the ruling Taliban council presided over by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. During the tense negotiations the Taliban had demanded the release of some of their senior jailed commanders. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government refused to consider releasing them after it ran into heavy international flak for having freed five senior Taliban leaders, including Yasir, in exchange for the release of an Italian journalist last March.

After the successful conclusion of the negotiations, South Korea only admitted that it had promised to withdraw the 200 noncombatant troops it had stationed in the war-torn country and neither confirmed nor denied that a ransom had been paid. On Wednesday, a South Korean presidential secretary told NEWSWEEK, "We aren't aware of any new developments in the case. Our government position is we didn't pay any ransom for the hostages."