Kabul to release 5,000 Taleban prisoners if violence eases

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (centre) said the release will depend on the Taleban's willingness to significantly limit attacks in the country. PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (AFP) - The Afghan government will gradually release 5,000 Taleban prisoners starting this week if the insurgents significantly reduce violence, President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman said on Wednesday (March 11), paving the way for peace talks following a US withdrawal deal.

The government will "release 1,500 Taleban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill" starting on Saturday, with another 3,500 to be freed after negotiations begin, Mr Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter.

The release will depend on the Taleban's willingness to significantly limit attacks in the country, he added.

The decision attempts to resolve one of the key disputes between the insurgents and the Afghan government.

Although the Taleban were due to start talks with Kabul on Tuesday, negotiations were delayed because the insurgents had demanded the release of 5,000 prisoners in return for 1,000 captives as a prerequisite for talks.

Mr Ghani had refused to accede but Wednesday's decree signalled a softening of his stance, with the proviso that none of the released prisoners would return to the frontlines.

The prisoner exchange was one of the key points in a US-Taleban agreement signed in Qatar last month.

Under the terms of that deal, foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taleban security guarantees and a pledge by the insurgents to hold talks with Kabul.

The US on Tuesday called on the Afghan government and the Taleban to meet immediately to work out a prisoner release aimed at starting peace talks.

"I urge the two sides to sit down immediately for talks on this issue in Doha, Qatar to work out the details," Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, the US negotiator, said on Twitter.

"The Afghan government has agreed to do so. When implemented, this will be a significant step in the peace process."

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