KABUL (REUTERS) - Afghanistan agreed on Sunday (Aug 9) to release 400 “hard-core” Taleban prisoners, paving the way for the beginning of peace talks aimed at ending more than 19 years of war.
Under election-year pressure from US President Donald Trump for a deal allowing him to bring home American troops, the war-torn country’s grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, on Sunday approved the release, a controversial condition raised by the Taleban militants to join peace talks.
“In order to remove an obstacle, allow the start of the peace process and an end of bloodshed, the Loya Jirga approves the release of 400 Taleban,” the assembly said in a resolution.
Minutes later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said, “Today, I will sign the release order of these 400 prisoners.”
Last week Ghani invited some 3,200 Afghan community leaders and politicians to Kabul amid tight security and concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic to advise the government on whether the prisoners should be freed.
With the release, the Afghan government will fulfil its pledge to release 5,000 Taleban prisoners.
Talks between the warring Taleban and government will start in Doha this week, Western diplomats said.
Ghani appealed to the hardline Islamist group to pledge to a complete ceasefire ahead of talks.
Deliberation over the release of last batch of Taleban prisoners, accused of conducting some of the bloodiest attacks across Afghanistan, had triggered outrage among civilians and rights groups who questioned the morality of the peace process.
In 2019 alone, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in the conflict in Afghanistan, putting total casualties in the past decade over 100,000, a United Nations report said last year.
Ahead of the Loya Jirga, Human Rights Watch cautioned that many of the prisoners had been jailed under “overly broad terrorism laws that provide for indefinite preventive detention”.
Ahead of November US elections, Trump is determined to fulfil a major campaign promise of ending America’s longest war.
The drawdown will bring the number of US troops to “a number less than 5,000” by the end of November, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview broadcast on Saturday.
In a February pact allowing for the withdrawal of US troops, Washington and the Taleban agreed on the release of the Taleban prisoners as a condition for the talks with Kabul.