KABUL (AFP) - Long-delayed peace talks between the Taleban and Afghan government negotiators will begin on Saturday (Sept 12) in Qatar, officials said, marking a potentially momentous milestone in Afghanistan's 19-year-old war.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Doha for the opening of the US-backed negotiations, as President Donald Trump seeks to honour his pledge to halt the country's "endless wars" overseas with just two months to go until he faces re-election.
The talks had originally been slated to start in March but were repeatedly pushed back amid disputes over a prisoner exchange that included the release of hundreds of battle-hardened Taleban fighters.
Trump announced Pompeo would depart on Thursday "on a historic trip to Doha, Qatar, for the beginning of intra-Afghan peace negotiations."
The insurgents, the Afghan government and Qatari officials all confirmed on Thursday the talks would begin on Saturday following an opening ceremony in Doha.
Pompeo, in a statement, called the talks a "historic" opportunity to end decades of war and bloodshed, adding "This opportunity must not be squandered".
Qatar's foreign ministry said the talks "are a serious and important step towards establishing sustainable peace in Afghanistan".
Afghanistan's former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who now heads the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), was set to fly to Qatar on Friday.
"HCNR hopes that after a long wait, talks will lead to permanent peace & stability & an end to war," the council said on Twitter.
The talks come as Trump faces uncertain prospects in the Nov 3 election and he has pushed hard to pull back US forces from Afghanistan, where they rose to more than 12,000 under his watch to pressure the Taleban and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The number fell to about 8,600 in July following a February accord between Washington and the Taleban, and is expected to be around 4,500 in October.
Trump believes pushing ahead could boost his standing among voters fed up with conflicts that began almost two decades ago, after the Sept 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks.
The announcement of the start of peace talks was delivered just hours after a final hurdle - the fate of six Taleban prisoners linked to the killings of French and Australian civilians and troops - appeared to have been resolved.
Peace talks were delayed for six months as the Taleban and Kabul conducted a US-brokered prisoner exchange. The Taleban released 1,000 Afghan troops, while Kabul freed 5,000 insurgents.
Paris and Canberra had objected to the freeing of six militants tied to killing French and Australian nationals, but a compromise appeared to have been struck by sending the insurgents into custody in Qatar.
Late on Thursday, the Taleban confirmed the six prisoners had arrived in Doha. They had been flown out of Kabul on a special plane, a Taleban source in Pakistan had told AFP earlier on Thursday.
The six included a former Afghan soldier charged with the killing of five French soldiers and injuring 13 others in 2012.
Another former Afghan soldier who murdered three Australia troops was also among the six.
The Taleban official said another two Taleban prisoners who murdered Frenchwoman Bettina Goislard, an employee of the UN refugee agency, had been released in Afghanistan's Wardak province.
Their release had also been initially opposed by Goislard's family and Paris.
The Afghan government did not immediately confirm the claim.