Afghan negotiators set to fly to Doha as prisoner release resumes

Kabul begins release of final batch of Taliban prisoners raising hopes of early start of so-called intra-Afghan talks.

In this handout photograph taken on August 25, 2020, and released by the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, Pakistan''s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (R) greets Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Ba
Kabul has released almost all of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners it was expected to free as part of the US-Taliban deal [File: AFP]

Afghan government negotiators will fly to Qatar’s capital on Thursday to prepare for long-delayed peace talks with the Taliban, as Kabul’s administration resumed releasing Taliban prisoners, an official has said.

“Tomorrow the team is leaving for Doha,” Fraidoon Khawzoon, the spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah who is the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), which has been tasked to hold talks with the armed group, told Reuters.

The Taliban had demanded a final group of 320 prisoners be released before they would participate in the talks, which were envisaged as part an agreement signed between the group and the United States in February.

Kabul had baulked at the release of the final 400 Taliban inmates who President Ashraf Ghani said were “a danger to the world”. Some Western governments, including France, also objected to the release of Taliban inmates.

But the government has this week set free another 200, leaving 120 remaining of a total 5,000 Taliban inmates that it was expected to release to kick off the talks aimed at reaching lasting peace after nearly 20 years of war.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, said that the “release of our remaining prisoners has started and it is a positive step which will pave the ground for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations”.

Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy Afghanistan
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement in Doha [File: Ibraheem al Omari/Reuters]

HCNR officials also confirmed to AFP the release of inmates, which concludes the protracted prisoner exchange process.

Khawzoon from HCNR told AFP that “all obstacles have been removed”.

The Afghan armed group was asked to free 1,000 government forces as part of the prisoner swap.

Earlier in the day, a spokeswoman for the State Ministry for Peace said a “small technical team” has been sent for Doha to prepare to start the peace talks.

“They are there for logistical preparations,” Najia Anwari told AFP.

Talks ‘soon’

It was not immediately clear when the talks will start, but both sides have expressed a willingness to kickstart them soon.

The Taliban has said it is willing to begin peace talks “within a week” of the prisoner exchange being completed and had blamed Kabul for delaying the negotiations so far.

The Taliban has been running an armed rebellion since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

US President Donald Trump has made ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing US troops back home a foreign policy priority of his administration.

Source: News Agencies