Afghan authorities have resumed a controversial release of Taliban inmates, a spokesman of the armed group said late on Tuesday, marking an important step towards breaking an impasse that has delayed the start of peace talks for months.
Negotiations were supposed to begin in March but were repeatedly pushed back as the Taliban and the Afghan government squabbled over the prisoner exchange, which included hundreds of battle-hardened fighters.
“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 spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Al Jazeera.
Another Taliban official from the group’s prison commission said 200 prisoners had been released by Kabul since Monday.
He said that in return for their prisoners, the armed group had released four Afghan commandos who had been held captive, adding that two more would be freed on Wednesday.
A senior Afghan government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that “dozens” of Taliban prisoners had been released on Monday.
“The remaining prisoners will be released within a couple of days,” he said.
Eight of the freed Taliban prisoners were paraded in front of local media in Kandahar, the Taliban bastion.
Final 400 prisoners
Under the terms of a United States-Taliban deal in February, Kabul was supposed to free 5,000 rebel fighters and the Taliban were meant to free 1,000 Afghan troops.
Both sides met most of their obligations, but Kabul had balked at the release of a final 400 inmates who President Ashraf Ghani himself said were “a danger to the world”.
On August 9, a powerful local council known as a loya jirga approved the release of these 400 prisoners, including many inmates who had carried out brutal attacks against Afghans and foreigners.
Their release was opposed by officials in Paris and Canberra because those on the list included rebels tied to the killing of French and Australian civilians and troops in Afghanistan.
It was not immediately clear if those rebels were among the prisoners freed since Monday.
Washington has pushed for the release of the imprisoned fighters.
US President Donald Trump has made ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing US troops back home a foreign policy priority of his administration.
The Taliban have said they are willing to begin peace talks “within a week” after all 400 prisoners are freed, and have blamed Kabul for delaying the negotiations so far.
Afghanistan’s State Ministry for Peace Affairs said on Tuesday that authorities had taken all efforts to ensure that peace talks begin soon.
“These efforts have put us closer than ever to the start of direct talks,” Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the ministry, told AFP.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, hailed the resumption of the prisoner release on Twitter as “a positive step” towards peace in Afghanistan.
“I hope necessary steps will be taken to pave the way for intra-Afghan talks and that delegations from both sides will meet very soon,” he tweeted.