Afghanistan did not commit to release 5,000 Taleban prisoners: President Ashraf Ghani

The Taleban demand for the release of its prisoners from Afghan jails cannot be a pre-condition to direct talks with the hardline group, President Ashraf Ghani said. PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (REUTERS) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected on Sunday (March 1) a Taleban demand for the release of 5,000 prisoners as a condition for talks with the Afghan government and civilians, included in a deal between the United States and the Islamist militants.

His remarks come against the backdrop of the difficulties US negotiators face in shepherding the Afghan government and Taleban towards intra- Afghan negotiations, according to Western diplomats.

"The government of Afghanistan has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taleban prisoners," Mr Ghani told reporters in Kabul, a day after the deal was signed in Qatar to start a political settlement aimed at ending the US' longest war.

The accord said the US and the Taleban were committed to working expeditiously to release combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure, with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides.

It said that up to 5,000 jailed Taleban prisoners would be released in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives by March 10.

However, on the issue of the prisoner swop, Mr Ghani said: "It is not in the authority of United States to decide, they are only a facilitator."

Saturday's accord was signed by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taleban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, witnessed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

After the ceremony, Mr Baradar met foreign ministers from Norway, Turkey and Uzbekistan in Doha, along with diplomats from Russia, Indonesia and neighbouring nations, the Taleban said, a move that signalled the group's determination to secure international legitimacy.

"The dignitaries who met Mullah Baradar expressed their commitments towards Afghanistan's reconstruction and development... the US-Taleban agreement is historical," said Taleban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

US President Donald Trump rejected criticism around the deal and said he would meet Taleban leaders in the near future.

Mr Ghani's aides said Mr Trump's decision to meet the Taleban could pose a challenge to the government at a time when the US troop withdrawal becomes imminent.

Under the agreement, Washington is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from 13,000 within 135 days of signing.

It will also work with allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over that period, if the Taleban adhere to their security guarantees and ceasefire.

A full withdrawal of all US and coalition forces would occur within 14 months, the joint statement said.

The withdrawal, however, depends on security guarantees by the Taleban who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and imposed many restrictions on women and activities it deemed "un-Islamic".

After being ousted from power in 2001, the Taleban have led a violent insurgency.

The Afghan war has been a stalemate for over 18 years, with the Taleban increasingly controlling or contesting more territory, yet unable to capture and hold major urban centres.

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