Prison releases trigger new United States-Afghan dispute

KABUL (AFP) - The United States on Wednesday criticised the planned release of 88 suspected militants from an Afghan jail, branding the men as "dangerous individuals" who could threaten security as NATO forces withdraw from the country.

Disagreement over the fate of the prisoners is the latest point of friction between US and Afghan authorities who are stuck in a bitter stalemate over a security accord that would allow some US troops to stay after 2014.

Bagram jail was finally handed over to Afghan control by the US in March after a public stand-off with President Hamid Karzai, who has presented the jail as a symbol of Afghanistan's efforts to regain its national sovereignty.

Many of those still held in Bagram are suspected high-level Taleban and Al-Qaeda fighters, and the US has long been concerned Afghanistan's weak and corruption-prone security forces could allow them to return to the battlefield.

"The Afghan Review Board has exceeded its mandate and ordered the release of a number of dangerous individuals who are legitimate threats," Colonel Dave Lapan, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

"Based on the evidence and the risk these individuals pose to the peace and security of the Afghan people... their cases should be addressed by the formal Afghan justice system." The review board last year ordered the release of 648 prisoners, of whom 560 have been freed.

The US is disputing the release of the final 88.

The 12-year war in Afghanistan is increasingly unpopular in the US, and often-fraught relations between Kabul and Washington have again worsened over Mr Karzai's refusal to sign the security accord, despite earlier vows to do so.

Some analysts believe the Afghan government hopes that the Bagram prison releases could help kick-start moribund peace talks with Taliban insurgents who were ousted from power in 2001.

This year will see the end of the US-led NATO combat mission in Afghanistan as 85,000 foreign troops pull out, though the security accord would allow several thousand US soldiers to remain to train and advise Afghan security forces.

Signing the agreement is a precondition for the delivery of billions of dollars in Western aid for Afghanistan.

A leaked US intelligence assessment said this week that progress in Afghanistan was likely to be seriously eroded by 2017 even if some US troops stay and Western powers continue to support Kabul financially.

The Afghan government was not immediately available to comment on the planned prison releases.