Afghan negotiators head to Doha as Taliban prisoner swap nears completion

Kabul (AFP) –


Afghan government-backed negotiators are set to head to Doha for peace talks with the Taliban, a top official said Wednesday, as President Ashraf Ghani insisted Kabul had met all its commitments for negotiations.

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

Kabul broke an impasse with the insurgent group Monday by resuming the protracted prisoner exchange, offering a fresh impetus for peace talks to begin.

"The government has fulfilled all its commitments in the peace process that the international community had hoped for," Ghani told the negotiating team at a meeting at the presidential palace on Wednesday, his office said.

"The release of Taliban prisoners is a clear demonstration of the government's commitment to peace."

Kabul had baulked at the release of the final 400 Taliban inmates who Ghani described as "a danger to the world", before a group of prominent Afghans approved their release for the sake of peace talks.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior government official told AFP on Wednesday that at least 200 prisoners have been released since Monday and the process "will continue today too".

A Taliban official said "the last batch" of their prisoners were still to be released and were expected to be freed later Wednesday.

With the prisoner release almost complete, peace talks are expected to finally begin in Qatar.

The Afghan government-backed negotiating team "will leave for Doha tomorrow (Thursday)", said Fraidoon Khwazoon, spokesman to Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, which is leading the overall peace process.

- 'Critical stage of peace' -

The date for talks to start is still to be fixed.

Paris and Canberra had opposed the release of militants on the list tied to the killing of French and Australian civilians and troops in Afghanistan.

It is not known if those militants have been released.

In return for the 400 prisoners, the militant group has freed four Afghan commandos and are expected to release two more on Wednesday, a Taliban official said.

"We expect the Taliban to live up to their commitments on the release of the remaining captives," Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter.

The prisoner exchange was agreed in a deal between the Taliban and the United States in February, which said Kabul should release a total of 5,000 militants in return for the Taliban freeing 1,000 Afghan troops.

Ghani said a "critical stage of peace" had been reached and that the talks would help reduce violence and finalise a permanent ceasefire.

The Taliban have said they were willing to begin negotiations "within a week" of the prisoner swap being completed and blamed Kabul for delaying the negotiations.

Kabul has already sent a "small technical team" to Doha to make logistical preparations ahead of the peace talks, Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the State Ministry for Peace Affairs told AFP.