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Taliban, Afghanistan prepare for prisoner swap

Taliban, Afghanistan prepare for prisoner swap
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, L, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, R, shake hands during the signing ceremony of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on February 29. The first action of the peace deal, a prisoner swap of Taliban members and Afghan government forces, is expected this week. File Photo by Stringer/EPA-EFE

April 1 (UPI) -- Afghanistan and the Taliban will begin a long-awaited prisoner exchange this week, the Taliban and sources within the government said Wednesday.

About 5,000 members of the anti-government insurgency are in Afghan captivity, and an announcement of the release of up to 100 of them, in exchange for 20 Afghan military personnel, is expected Thursday. Government sources confirmed the plan, and a Taliban statement said that a three-member delegation now in Kabul "will pursue the issue of prisoner release and help in necessary technical steps."

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The delegation arrived Tuesday, the first time insurgency representatives were in the capital since the Taliban was removed from power in 2001 in a military invasion led by the United States. The delegates traveled from Khandahar province before being flown to Kabul by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The prisoner exchange is designed to be the start of peace negotiations and requires the Taliban to free about 1,000 government detainees.

The peace process is outlined in an agreement signed in February between the United States and the Taliban. It commits the United States and allies to a withdrawal of military forces, over 14 months, in exchange for Taliban assurances that terrorists will not use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is not a party to the prisoner swap, but under pressure from Washington, agreed last week to assembling a 21-member team of negotiators ready to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban and other stakeholders within the country.

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"We have seen a team identified and it looks like it's pretty inclusive, pretty broad," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented. "We're happy about that. We have begun to see some work done on prisoner releases as well."

On Tuesday, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's self-proclaimed president and a political rival of Ghani, endorsed this week's negotiations with the Taliban. Abdullah lost a September 2019 election, which he says was unfairly manipulated, to Ghani. Their rivalry increased concerns that a united Afghan force to negotiate with the Taliban would not be formed.

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