The Taliban is set to release 20 Afghan government prisoners in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar – the first handover by the armed group since the beginning of a peace process.
“Today, 20 prisoners of the Kabul administration will be released,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter, adding that the group would be handed over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
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The announcement follows a string of releases of Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government and came after the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan met Taliban leaders to discuss a reduction in violence in the war-weary country.
Since Wednesday, the Afghan government has released 300 Taliban prisoners as part of an agreement signed between the US and the Afghan armed group aimed at ending the 18-year-long war.
The swap deal was part of the agreement signed on February 29 that promised the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the armed group.
The pact also called on the armed group to start talks with Kabul to achieve a lasting peace.
The deal requires the Afghan government – which was not a signatory to the accord – to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and for the armed group to release 1,000 pro-government captives in return.
A small Taliban team met the government to discuss a comprehensive prisoner swap last week, but walked out of the talks soon after officials offered a piecemeal release of the prisoners.
The exchange has been beset with problems, with Kabul claiming the Taliban wants 15 of its “top commanders” to be released, while the fighters have accused Afghan authorities of wasting time.
The Taliban cautioned that its decision to release a group of prisoners did not mean that the talks with Kabul were being restarted.
“No the process is not back on, but this is a goodwill step [by the Taliban] to accelerate the prisoners’ exchange process,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP news agency.
Javid Faisal, the spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, chided the armed group for not starting the process earlier, saying a reduction in violence and subsequent ceasefire between the two sides was needed.
“They should also prepare for a face-to-face meeting with the Islamic republic of Afghanistan,” said Faisal.