Uncertainty over fate of Western hostages, Taliban prisoners

Kabul (AFP) –


Two Western hostages of the Taliban, who are expected to be freed in a prisoner swap for three militants, will be released only when the insurgents "reach their destination", a spokesman for the Islamist group said Wednesday.

The fate of the American and Australian hostages -- both professors at the American University in Kabul when they were kidnapped in 2016 -- remained unclear a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the exchange.

"When our captives reach their destination, the American University professors will be released," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Wednesday.

He did not specify what that destination would be.

Afghan authorities declined to comment further on Wednesday, while the US embassy in Kabul said it had no further information after its ambassador had welcomed the news a day earlier.

Australia's foreign ministry said it did not want to give a "running commentary" on the process.

"We sincerely appreciate President Ghani’s concern for Tim Weeks and Kevin King, and hope the Taliban immediately releases the hostages," a spokesperson said.

Ghani said Tuesday that three prisoners -- including Anas Haqqani, brother to the leader of one of the Taliban's most feared factions -- would be freed.

The move was in apparent exchange for the release of the two Western hostages, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks.

But Ghani did not say when or where any swap would take place.

Mujahid said he "cannot confirm" if the Taliban prisoners had already been released. They were last known to have been detained by Afghan authorities in Bagram prison, north of Kabul.

Ghani had hinted on Tuesday that they could be released outside the country, stating that after consulting with international partners including Washington "we have made sure that the release of these three prisoners would not reinforce the enemy's frontlines or increase their attacks".

King and Weeks were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in the heart of Kabul in August, 2016.

They later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that King was in poor health.

On Tuesday, Ghani noted that "their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists".

Anas Haqqani is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the eponymous Taliban affiliate which is one of the top US targets in the region.

His brother Sirajuddin now leads the Haqqani Network and is deputy head of the Taliban.

Afghan authorities accuse Anas of a being a high-level player in the network. The Taliban has long demanded his release, insisting he is a student.

The other two Taliban prisoners to be released are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban's political office in Qatar.