South Korea hostages freed by Taliban leave hospital

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ANYANG, South Korea, Sep 12 (Reuters) South Korean Christian volunteers held hostage in Afghanistan for nearly six weeks left hospital today, with their doctor saying they were physically fit but may still need counselling.

Taliban insurgents seized 23 South Koreans, killing two during early negotiations, but eventually releasing the rest after Seoul promised to withdraw its small contingent of troops from Afghanistan and bar any more missionaries from working there.

The chief of the hospital outside Seoul where they have spent the last 10 days told reporters they were fit enough to go home to their families.

But he added: ''They may be coming in individually for treatment on psychological issues.'' The hostages returned home on September 2 to a somewhat frosty welcome, with their church under heavy criticism for sending its members into such an obviously dangerous environment and putting the government in a bind.

The hostages said that their captivity had often been difficult to bear.

''They demanded we convert to Islam, and some of them were violent to us, although it wasn't constant,'' one of the hostages, Jae Chang-hee, said. ''They would throw rocks at us.

They threatened us with their guns.'' But while they again apologised for the trouble they had caused, the hostages showed no sign of wanting to give up missionary work if they were allowed.

''We understand the Christian community is debating that,'' another former hostage, Lyu Kyung-sik, said when asked if they would return to trouble spots to do missionary work. ''We'll follow the decision.'' The government has faced international criticism for negotiating directly with the kidnappers.

South Korea's spy chief has refused to deny his government paid a ransom to secure the hostages' release. A senior Taliban leader told Reuters after the hostages' release that Seoul had put up million for their release.

REUTERS CS KP1318

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