Last 7 South Korean hostages released

All seven remaining South Korean hostages were freed Thursday by their Taliban captors as part of a deal that has been criticized by both Afghan and Canadian officials.

All seven remaining South Korean hostageswere freed Thursday by their Taliban captors as part of a deal that has been criticized by both Afghan and Canadian officials.

South Koreans at a railway station in Seoul watch a TV program displaying pictures of the seven remaining South Korean hostages in Afghanistan. ((Lee Jin-man/Associated Press))

Two men and two women were handed over to officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross on a road in the Ghazni province of central Afghanistan, and later in the day, three female hostages were released.

"They are very happy at the moment," Irfan Sulejmani, a Red Cross official, said as he drove the last three released women to Ghazni city.

"They are holding each other's hands. They are very relieved."

Sulejmani, speaking to CBC News by cellphone, said all seven hostages, travelling in a convoy of trucks, will be reunited with Korean officials in Ghazni city. As the convoys were travelling to the city, the hostages were waving to each other out the windows of their trucks, he said.

The hostages are expected to be back in South Korea by Sunday.

Three of the hostages who were released on Wednesday. ((Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press))

They were among 23 South Korean Christian aid workers seized by Taliban militants as they travelled by bus from Kabul to Kandahar on July 19. In late July, the militants shot and killed two male hostages, but in mid-August, they released two female hostages.

On Wednesday, 12 of the remaining 19 hostages were freed, andmilitants promised that the last seven would be freed soon after.

Thedecision to freeall 19 remaining hostagesfollowed adeal struck Tuesday between South Korean officials and Taliban representatives in whichSeoul reaffirmed its pledge to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and to suspend South Korean Christian missionary work there.

No money was involved in the deal, both sides say.

The militants had originallydemandedthe Afghan government and the U.S. military release Taliban prisoners in exchange for the hostages' safe return, but the militants backed off that demand in their negotiations.

'We do not negotiate with terrorists': Bernier

Soon after the hostages' release, a Taliban spokesman vowed to abduct more foreigners.

"We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful," spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told the Associated Press, speaking on a cellphone from an undisclosed location.

His comments appear to reinforce the worries of Canadian officials and others, who say Seoul might have set a dangerous precedent in directly negotiating with the Taliban.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier expressed regret late Wednesday over South Korea's handling of the crisis.

"We do not negotiate with terrorists, for any reason," said a statementfrom Bernier's office. "Such negotiations, even if unsuccessful, only lead to further acts of terrorism."

The United States government has also expressed fear over negotiating with the Taliban, with spokesman Tom Casey saying Thursday that the U.S. has a long-standing policy "not to make concessions to terrorists."

Afghan Commerce Minister Amin Farhang also voiced criticism, stating thatthe South Korean-Taliban negotiation will only make the problems in Afghanistan worse.

"We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan," Farhang said Thursday.

Analysts say the Taliban have emerged from the crisis with renewed political legitimacy because for the first time since they were ousted from power in 2001, they have negotiated with a foreign government.

"Taliban now have diplomacy, they have got spokesmen, they value cameras, they have a political dimension for their movement, and their aim is to be recognized as legitimate," said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

With files from the Associated Press