KABUL: Afghan peace talks are expected to begin within days after authorities announced on Monday they would soon start releasing hundreds of Taliban prisoners accused of brutal attacks, including on foreigners.
The fate of some 400 Taliban inmates has been a crucial hurdle in launching much-delayed talks between the militants and the Afghan government, who had committed to completing a prisoner exchange before negotiations could start.
Thousands of prominent Afghans on Sunday approved their release at the end of a three-day “loya jirga” — a traditional Afghan gathering of tribal elders and other stakeholders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues.
“Our stance is clear, if the prisoner release is completed, then we are ready for the intra-Afghan talks within a week,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said. Shaheen said the first round of talks would be held in Doha, Qatar.
“The Afghan government will start releasing the 400 Taliban prisoners within two days,” National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said on Monday.
Late on Monday, President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree ordering the release of the 400 prisoners, his office said.
The prisoner exchange was a key part of a deal signed by the Taliban and the United States in February, which saw Washington agree to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for a pledge from the insurgents to hold peace talks with the Kabul government.
The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion which has been followed by nearly two decades of fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that “a historic opportunity for peace is now possible”.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg also said on Twitter that Nato will “support the peace process”.
The Afghan government has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates already, but authorities had baulked at freeing the final 400 prisoners demanded by the militants.
The prisoners are accused of serious offences including killing scores of Afghans and foreigners, with 44 insurgents of particular concern to the United States and other countries for their role in “high-profile” attacks.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had lobbied for a former Afghan army soldier, who went rogue and killed three Australian colleagues, to stay in jail.
Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2020