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Afghan government, Taliban to discuss prisoner release ‘face to face’

Taliban insurgents turn themselves in to Afghan forces, 2010. (Resolute Support Media/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Afghan government officials are set to meet with a Taliban delegation in the coming days to discuss an initial release of militant prisoners, Afghanistan’s National Security Council says.

After the two sides spoke via video conference on March 25, council spokesman Javid Faisal tweeted, “A Taliban team will meet with the government face-to-face in Afghanistan in the coming days” to further discuss the release of 100 prisoners by March 31.

The detainees would be freed on humanitarian grounds “after guarantees by Taliban and the prisoners that they will not re-enter the fight,” Faisal wrote.

The development could help break a deadlock that has held up negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government under a U.S.-brokered peace process.

The video conference “decided that the release of the prisoners will practically start by the end of March,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.

Shaheen said the Taliban would send a team to the Bagram detention center north of Kabul, where Afghan authorities are holding many Taliban prisoners.

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who attended the “technical meeting,” said the sides “agreed prisoner releases by both sides will start March 31.”

All sides consider the release of prisoners a prerequisite for the beginning of intra-Afghan talks.

But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said the government would initially free 1,500 prisoners, while the Taliban has demanded 5,000 as a precondition to talks with Kabul.

Khalilzad has said a prisoner release has become more urgent because of the spread of coronavirus.

An agreement signed in Doha on February 29 by the United States and the Taliban could lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan as part of a peace process aimed at bringing an end to the conflict in Afghanistan.

The United States has said it is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan from about 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal.

A full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces would occur within 14 months in return for various security commitments from the Taliban and a pledge to hold talks with the Afghan government — which the militant group so far has refused to do.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on March 25 he had issued an order to the U.S. military halting all travel and movement abroad for up to 60 days in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus through the ranks.

One exception to the order will be the draw-down under way in Afghanistan, Esper told Reuters.