Taliban free 2 South Korean women among 23 kidnapped in Afghanistan in July

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (AP) - Two women among the 23 South Koreans kidnapped by the Taliban in mid-July were freed Monday on a rural roadside and then driven to a U.S. base, the first significant breakthrough in a hostage drama now more than three weeks old.

The two women, who broke into tears after seeing the international Red Cross officials there to take custody of them, got out of a dark gray Toyota Corolla driven by an Afghan elder and into one of two waiting Red Cross SUVs. The women said nothing to reporters alerted to the handoff location five miles southeast of Ghazni city by a Taliban spokesman.

The women - who wore scarves on their heads, khaki trousers and a traditional Afghan shirt that hangs to the knees, were then driven to the U.S. base in Ghazni city, where American soldiers searched them and then let them inside. Both carried bags with them.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry identified the freed hostages as Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Ji-na and called for the release of the other captives. Previous media reports said the two women were 37 and 32 years old, respectively.

"We urge the kidnappers to release our people," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Hee-yong.

The women, who the Taliban have said are ill, were among church group volunteers kidnapped by militants on July 19.

The release is the first breakthrough in the hostage drama, which took a downturn in late July when two male captives were executed by gunfire. Fourteen women and five men are still being held.

The Taliban have demanded the release of 21 militant prisoners being held in jails by the Afghan government and U.S. military at the base at Bagram. The government has said it won't release any prisoners out of fear that kidnapping could become an industry in Afghanistan.

The local governor has suggested in the past that the hostage standoff could be solved with a ransom payment.

The Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said on Sunday that the two women would be released in part because they were sick and because face-to-face negotiations that began on Friday were going well.

The two women were brought to the arranged meeting point on the side of a road in rural Ghazni province by an Afghan named Haji Zahir, who also got into the Red Cross vehicle with the freed hostages.

Separately, a suicide bomber targeted a U.S.-led coalition convoy in eastern Afghanistan.

The blast in Khost province killed the bomber, said Gen. Mohammad Ayub, the provincial police chief. There were no immediate reports of casualties among the U.S. forces.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said they were aware of a car bomb in the east but did not have further details.

In the south, Afghan police and army soldiers battled militants Sunday in Kandahar province's Shohrawak district, said provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqib.

The joint Afghan forces thwarted a planned militant ambush at the district chief's compound, and the ensuing clash left nine militants dead, Saqib said. Authorities recovered the militants' bodies and weapons, he said.

During a cleanup operation after the battle, a roadside bomb hit a police vehicle in the same district, killing five officers and wounding two others, Saqib said.

Violence in Afghanistan has risen sharply during the last two months. More than 3,700 people, mostly militants, have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of casualty figures provided by Western and Afghan officials.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)