Kabul resumes Taliban prisoner release: insurgent spokesman

Kabul (AFP) –


Afghan authorities have resumed a controversial release of Taliban inmates, an insurgent spokesman said Tuesday, marking an important step toward breaking an impasse that has delayed the start of peace talks for months.

Negotiations were supposed to begin in March but were repeatedly pushed back as the Taliban and the Afghan government squabbled over the prisoner exchange, which included hundreds of battle-hardened insurgents.

"Our prisoners have been released and we see this as a positive step that paves the ground for the start of intra-Afghan talks," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP late Tuesday.

Another Taliban official from the group's prison commission said 200 prisoners had been released by Kabul since Monday.

He said in return for their prisoners, the militants had released four Afghan commandos who had been held captive, adding that two more would be freed on Wednesday.

A senior Afghan government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that "dozens" of Taliban prisoners had been released on Monday.

"The remaining prisoners will be released within a couple of days," he said.

Eight of the freed Taliban prisoners were paraded in front of local media in Kandahar, the insurgent bastion.

- Final 400 prisoners -

Under the terms of a US-Taliban deal in February, Kabul was supposed to free 5,000 militants and the Taliban were meant to free 1,000 Afghan troops.

Both sides met most of their obligations, but Kabul had balked at the release of a final 400 inmates who President Ashraf Ghani himself said were "a danger to the world".

On August 9 thousands of prominent Afghans approved the release of these 400 prisoners, which included many prisoners who had carried out brutal attacks against Afghans and foreigners.

Their release was opposed by officials in Paris and Canberra because those on the list included militants tied to the killing of French and Australian civilians and troops in Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear if those insurgents were among the prisoners freed since Monday.

Washington has pushed for the release of the imprisoned militants.

US President Donald Trump has made ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing US troops back home a foreign policy priority of his administration.

The Taliban have said they are willing to begin peace talks "within a week" after all 400 prisoners are freed, and blamed Kabul for delaying the negotiations so far.

Afghanistan's State Ministry for Peace Affairs said on Tuesday that authorities had taken all efforts to ensure that peace talks begin soon.

"These efforts have put us closer than ever to the start of direct talks," Najia Anwari, spokeswoman to the ministry, told AFP.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, hailed the resumption of the prisoner release on Twitter as "a positive step" towards peace in Afghanistan.

"I hope necessary steps will be taken to pave the way for intra-Afghan talks and that delegations from both sides will meet very soon," he tweeted.