After months of delays, Afghan peace talks to begin Saturday


Kabul (AFP)

Long-delayed peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators will begin Saturday in Qatar, officials said, marking a potentially momentous milestone in Afghanistan's 19-year-old war.

The US-backed talks had originally been slated to start in March but were repeatedly pushed back amid disputes over a prisoner exchange that included the release of hundreds of battle-hardened Taliban fighters.

The insurgents, the Afghan government and Qatari officials all confirmed on Thursday the talks would begin Saturday following an opening ceremony in Doha.

"The start of these talks marks a historic opportunity for Afghanistan to bring an end to four decades of war and bloodshed," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

"This opportunity must not be squandered," he added.

Qatar's foreign ministry said the talks "are a serious and important step towards establishing sustainable peace in Afghanistan".

Afghanistan's former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who now heads the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), was set to fly to Qatar on Friday.

"HCNR hopes that after a long wait, talks will lead to permanent peace & stability & an end to war," the council said on Twitter.

The announcement of the start of peace talks came just hours after a final hurdle -- the fate of six Taliban prisoners linked to the killings of French and Australian civilians and troops -- appeared to have been resolved.

Peace talks were delayed for six months as the Taliban and Kabul conducted a US-backed prisoner exchange. The Taliban released 1,000 Afghan troops, while Kabul freed 5,000 insurgents.

Paris and Canberra had objected to the freeing of six militants tied to killing French and Australian nationals, but a compromise appeared to have been struck by sending the insurgents into custody in Qatar.

An Afghan government official said the six were en route to Doha, noting the issue "had been resolved".

Late on Thursday, the Taliban confirmed the six prisoners had arrived in Doha.

The six militants had been flown out of Kabul to Doha on a special plane, a Taliban source in Pakistan had told AFP earlier on Thursday.

The six included a former Afghan soldier charged with the killing of five French soldiers and injuring 13 others in 2012.

Another former Afghan soldier who murdered three Australia troops was also among the six.

The Taliban official said another two Taliban prisoners who murdered Frenchwoman Bettina Goislard, an employee of the UN refugee agency, had been released in Afghanistan's Wardak province.

Their release had also been initially opposed by Goislard's family and Paris.

The Afghan government did not immediately confirm the claim.