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US envoy calls Afghan prisoner releases ‘important step’ toward peace

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.

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated a deal with the Taliban, has welcomed a prisoner exchange between the militants and the Afghan government as an “important step” toward peace.

“Both sides should accelerate efforts to meet targets specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement as soon as possible,” Khalilzad said on Twitter on April 13, adding that the exchange was more important than ever with prison populations threatened by an outbreak of coronavirus.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Taliban on April 12 released 20 Afghan prisoners in the southern province of Kandahar.

The move came after the Afghan government released 100 Taliban prisoners, bringing to 300 the total number of Taliban inmates freed since April 8.

A pact signed by the United States and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, on February 29 calls for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters as a confidence-building measure ahead of formal peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has vowed to release some 1,000 Afghan government troops and civilian workers it is holding.

But the Taliban last week recalled a three-member team it had sent to Kabul to try to finalize the swap originally set to happen by March 10.

The militants blamed the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for delaying the exchange “under one pretext or another,” while Kabul called on the Taliban not to “sabotage the process by making excuses.”

In return for the start of talks between Kabul and the Taliban and a series of security commitments from the militants, all U.S. troops and other foreign coalition forces are meant to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months.