Afghan authorities have started to release 400 Taliban prisoners, the final hurdle in long-delayed peace talks between the two warring sides, even as President Ashraf Ghani warned they were a “danger to the world”.
A group of 80 prisoners was released on Thursday, National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said, tweeting it would “speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire”.
The release of the 400 prisoners was approved at the weekend after a three-day Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders, held to decide on momentous issues.
The prisoner release is part of the US-Taliban agreement signed in February, which saw Washington agree to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for a pledge from the armed group to hold peace talks with the Afghan government.
The Trump administration pressured President Ghani’s government, which was not part of the pact signed in the Qatari capital Doha, to free the Taliban inmates as US elections approach. Troops withdrawal was one of Trump’s campaign promises in 2016 elections.
Many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, with more than 150 of them on death row, according to an official list seen by the AFP news agency.
The prisoners also include some 44 fighters of particular concern to the United States and other countries for their role in “high-profile” attacks.
The Afghan government and the Taliban are set to meet within days of the prisoner release being completed, in a move that has drawn widespread condemnation after it emerged many of the inmates were involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners.
The prisoners’ fate was a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two sides. The Afghan government has released almost all the Taliban prisoners on the list, but authorities have baulked at freeing the final 400.
Ghani warned on Thursday the hardened criminals were “likely to pose a danger both to us and to (America) and to the world”.
“Until this issue, there was a consensus on the desirability of peace but not on the cost of it,” Ghani said in a video conference organised by a US think-tank.
“We have now paid the major instalment on cost and that means peace will have consequences,” he added.
The February agreement had stipulated that Kabul release 5,000 fighters in return for 1,000 Afghan government prisoners held by the Taliban.
The Loyal Jirga, while approving the release of the final 400 Taliban prisoners, asked authorities to monitor the freed prisoners to ensure they did not return to the battlefield.
No date has been set, but negotiations between Kabul’s political leadership and the Taliban will most likely be held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office.
Ahead of the Loyal Jirga, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had urged the gathering to release the prisoners, although he acknowledged the move was “unpopular”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this week he had lobbied for a former Afghan army soldier, who went rogue and killed three Australian colleagues, to stay in jail.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has warned of possible attacks against the freed prisoners by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group in coordination with Afghanistan’s spy agency.