KABUL: At least 17 participants of an Afghan grand assembly tested positive for the new coronavirus, officials said on Saturday, a day after the high-profile gathering began in Kabul to deliberate over the fate of Taliban prisoners and the beginning of the peace process in the war-torn country.

After being called by the Afghan government, the gathering, known as the Loya Jirga, began on Friday with over 3,600 participants amid tight security and the Covid-19 pandemic to debate whether about 400 Taliban prisoners should be freed, removing a major obstacle in the peace talks.

“Samples from all 3,620 participants were taken by our health team, and among them result of 17 were positive” for the virus that causes the disease, said Saeed Jami, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s ministry of public health. Some participants were tested twice, he said. The 17 who tested positive were sent to hospital for quarantine and treatment.

The Loya Jirga, ending on Sunday, is to give a non-binding advice to the government.

It was not immediately clear if the testing was done before or after the assembly began, but there is a fear that the infection could have spread given the size of the gathering, which took place under a tent.

Afghanistan has officially recorded 37,015 cases of the virus and 1,307 Covid-19 deaths, but officials said this week that at least 10 million people might have been infected.

The United States, which signed a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February, has been watching the Loya Jirga closely.

The newly appointed head of the Loya Jirga and former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said on Saturday the outcome was “life or death” for Afghanistan and that its final advice would be announced on Sunday.

“I really hope the jirga’s advice to the government is to help advance the peace process,” he said.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2020