US envoy urges Kabul, Taliban to begin prisoner releases

Zalmay Khalilzad says the coronavirus pandemic increases urgency of measures agreed upon as part of recent agreement.

    The prisoner releases being urged by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad were slated to have started last week as part of an effort the US is leading to end its longest war [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]
    The prisoner releases being urged by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad were slated to have started last week as part of an effort the US is leading to end its longest war [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

    The coronavirus pandemic adds urgency to prisoner releases agreed to by the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has said, advising they take place "as soon as possible".

    "No prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides," Khalilzad tweeted on Wednesday.

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    Khalilzad's comments illustrated how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting one of US President Donald Trump's top foreign policy priorities.

    The prisoner releases were slated to have started last week as part of an effort the US is leading to end its longest war and bring peace to Afghanistan after decades of strife.

    But the releases were stalled by disagreements over the numbers of detainees to be freed and guarantees they would not return to fighting.

    "The United States would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the US-Taliban agreement," Khalilzad tweeted, referring to a February 29 deal he signed with the armed group for a phased US troop withdrawal.

    "Coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence," he continued, adding that the US understood from consultations with both sides that they could "work together and focus on technical steps" for freeing detainees.

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    While face-to-face meetings were preferable, "coronavirus and the resulting travel restrictions likely requires virtual engagement now", Khalilzad said, urging both sides "to avoid provocative media statements".

    The US-Taliban deal committed Kabul to releasing up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10, when intra-Afghan peace talks were to have begun. The Taliban were to free up to 1,000 detainees.

    Kabul, however, was not a party to the deal, and initially balked.

    President Ghani then agreed to free 1,500 prisoners last weekend with plans to release the rest after peace talks began and violence subsided. Kabul also demanded guarantees that the prisoners would not return to fighting.

    The Taliban said the deal with Washington required Ghani to free all 5,000 prisoners without preconditions.

    "The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield," Khalilzad tweeted. "A violation will undermine the peace process."

    Afghanistan has at least 22 confirmed coronavirus cases. But there are fears that the number will grow, especially with thousands of Afghans returning from Iran, one of the worst-affected nations.

    SOURCE: News agencies