ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Tuesday welcomed the exchange of Taliban prisoners with Western hostages and hoped that it would pave the way for Afghan peace process.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, while welcoming the swap, emphasised the role played by Pakistan and reaffirmed his government’s support for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict.

“Pakistan welcomes release of Profs Kevin King and Timothy Weeks in Afghanistan. We appreciate steps taken by all involved to make it possible,” PM Khan said.

He said: “As part of the international community working to bring peace and end the suffering of the Afghan people, Pakistan has fully supported and facilitated this release as part of its policy of supporting initiatives for a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict.”

He was optimistic that this exchange will boost confidence of all parties to the conflict and encourage them to re-engage in the peace process. “Pakistan remains committed to facilitating this peace process,” he added.

Earlier Taliban released the two professors of American University of Afghanistan — an American and an Australian, which they were holding since 2016, under a deal, through which the Afghan government released three senior Afghan commanders Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan, and Hafiz Rashid. It is said that several Afghan soldiers were also set free by the Taliban under the deal.

The three Taliban men were flown to Doha and handed over to the political team of the insurgent group, while the Western hostages were released in Zabul (Afghanistan).

Taliban, through a statement, confirmed the swap and welcomed it as a major ‘confidence building measure’ for the peace process.

“Today, IEA released two foreign professors, Kevin King and Temothy Weeks, in Zabul, Afghanistan, as a confidence-building measure to help the peace process aimed at peaceful solution of the Afghan issue,” spokesman for Taliban’s Political Office Suhail Shaheen said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had last week announced the exchange and said that it was being done to facilitate the peace process and reduce violence.

However, implementing the swap took much longer giving rise to concerns that the deal had fallen apart.

“As per the deal with the Americans, our prisoners were to be taken to the mutually agreed safe location and freed there. We would have then released and handed the American (and his colleague) over to them,” chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had told VoA on Friday. He had then said that since the Americans failed to show up at the agreed place, they were suspending the deal.

The international facilitators, however, worked behind the scenes to ensure that the deal went ahead and was not abruptly terminated like the peace agreement, which the US and Taliban, were close to signing when all of a sudden President Donald Trump in September ended negotiations with the Afghan insurgents.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2019