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Afghan government to release 500 Taliban prisoners as three-day cease-fire starts

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a joint news conference with then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 12, 2016. (Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tim D. Godbee/Department of Defense)

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

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ordered the release of an additional 500 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture as a three-day cease-fire proposed by the Taliban and agreed to by the Afghan government took effect on July 31.

During a televised speech, Ghani said he had now released 4,600 Taliban prisoners out of the 5,000 pledged in a landmark agreement signed with the United States and the Taliban in February.

However, Ghani said he has “no authority” under the country’s constitution to release the remaining 400 inmates on the Taliban list because of their involvement in serious crimes.

Ghani said he would summon a consultative Loya Jirga — a traditional grand assembly of elders — to decide the fate of the remaining 400.

The Afghan president also called on the Taliban to enter into peace talks as soon as possible.

“The fate of the remaining prisoners will be discussed and finalized during the negotiations,” Ghani added.

The Taliban says it has freed all 1,000 prisoners it had pledged in the agreement with Washington.

The two foes earlier this week announced a halt in hostilities for the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival starting on July 31, raising hopes that the long-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks could begin next week.

But on the eve of the 72-hour cease-fire, at least nine people were killed in the explosion in Pul-e-Alam, capital of eastern Logar Province.

The bomb went off in the central Azadi (Liberty) Square in the city, which was packed with people shopping for Eid celebrations, according to local officials and eyewitnesses.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that all the victims were civilians, with many women and children among the dead. It said nine people had been killed and 40 more were injured but noted that these figures were provisional. Some reports said as many as 18 people were killed.

Provincial police spokesman Shahpoor Ahmadzai said the attack had targeted a police checkpoint and that there were security forces among the victims. Government forces have gathered in the city to prepare for security measures ahead of the Eid celebrations, Ahmadzai said.

He said the civilian casualties were mainly in cars that had stopped at a checkpoint.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. The Taliban denied involvement.

Interior Ministry spokesman Tarek Arian, however, said the militant group “certainly cannot claim it is not behind such incidents.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to revive peace talks with visits to Pakistan and the Afghan capital, as well as in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office.