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US urges Afghan government, Taliban to move forward with prisoner releases

Zalmay Khalilzad at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

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

The United States says the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban should begin prisoner releases “as soon as possible,” adding that the global coronavirus pandemic is making this a matter of even greater urgency.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in a Twitter thread on March 18 that the “coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence.”

Khalilzad signed a deal on February 29 with Taliban negotiators aimed at ending the nearly 19-year Afghan war.

The accord called for the release by the Afghan government of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners as well as the freeing of 1,000 Afghan government captives ahead of intra-Afghan talks.

The Taliban, which so far has refused to meet directly with the Afghan government, said it was committed to the deal but would not start negotiations with Kabul until its fighters were freed.

Western-backed Kabul was not a party to the deal and initially resisted freeing any prisoners. President Ashraf Ghani then agreed to free 1,500 last week and the rest after peace talks were finalized and Taliban violence had ceased.

But the peace process was again thrown into crisis on March 15 when Kabul said the release of the first Taliban prisoners had been delayed.

Jawed Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan National Security Adviser’s office, said the government needed more time to review the list of the prisoners.

“We have received the lists of the prisoners to be released. We are checking and verifying the lists. This will take time,” Faisal said.

The prisoner releases were slated to have started last week as part of a U.S.-led effort to end America’s longest war and bring peace to Afghanistan after decades of strife.

Khalilzad, in his Twitter comments, said that “no prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so expressed by both sides.”

“The United States would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” Khalilzad wrote, adding that Washington understood from talks with both sides that they could “work together and focus on technical steps” for freeing detainees.

He said that while face-to-face are meetings are preferable, “Coronavirus and the resulting travel restrictions likely requires virtual engagement now,” he said, adding that both sides should “avoid provocative media statements.”