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Afghan government begins release of final group of Taliban prisoners

Taliban Prisoners (MOECKLI, Olivier/WikiCommons)

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

The Afghan government says it has started releasing 400 Taliban militants, the final part of a prisoner swap meant to clear the way for the start of peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

Javid Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, made the announcement.

Taliban officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said 86 detainees were freed. It wasn’t immediately known when the remaining prisoners would be released.

The prisoner release would “speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide cease-fire,” the security body said.

President Ashraf Ghani announced on August 9 his intention to release the 400 Taliban militants, many of whom have been convicted for deadly attacks on Afghans and foreigners.

The Afghan National Security Council tweeted, “The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan yesterday released 80 Taliban convicts out of the 400 that the Consultative Loya Jirga sanctioned for release to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire.”

The decision came shortly after the move was recommended by a traditional Loya Jirga consultative assembly in Kabul.

The release of the prisoners is the last hurdle to opening peace talks between the internationally backed government in Kabul and the Taliban under a peace deal signed in February between the militants and the United States.

Both sides have said that within days of the final prisoners being released they are ready to begin intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar.

There was no immediate response from the Taliban about the prisoner release.

But on August 12 the Taliban issued a statement warning that detainees released from Pul-e Charkhi prison, the country’s largest detention facility in Kabul, faced “a serious security threat.”

The Taliban claimed that the rival Islamic State extremist group, in cooperation with some government spoilers, planned to attack vehicles transporting the remaining detainees to disrupt intra-Afghan negotiations.

Kabul had already freed 4,600 Taliban inmates out of the 5,000 pledged in the landmark U.S.-Taliban deal.

Afghan officials have described the remaining prisoners as the most dangerous, accusing them of masterminding attacks on embassies, public squares, and government offices, killing thousands of civilians in recent years.

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

In addition to the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops, the U.S.-Taliban deal calls on the Taliban to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview on August 8 that the United States plans to cut its troop levels in Afghanistan to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November.

Although the Taliban hasn’t targeted U.S. forces since the February deal, militants have carried out multiple attacks on government forces that have killed 3,560 Afghan security personnel.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has documented more than 1,280 Afghan civilian deaths during the first half of 2020 — mainly as a result of fighting between government forces and the Taliban.

On August 14, a small bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded near a mosque in Kabul just as worshipers were finishing their prayers, wounding a police officer. No one immediately took responsibility but the Islamic State group has in the past targeted mosques in Afghanistan.