Afghanistan to release senior Taleban prisoners in apparent swap

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the decision to release the three Taleban prisoners had been "very hard and necessary". PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (AFP) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced Tuesday (Nov 12) that three high-ranking Taleban prisoners would be released, in an apparent exchange for two Western hostages who were kidnapped by the insurgents in 2016.

The three Taleban prisoners include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taleban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

"We have decided to conditionally release three Taleban prisoners who... have been in Bagram prison in the custody of the Afghan government for some time," Mr Ghani said in an announcement at the presidential palace.

He did not specify the fate of the Western hostages - an Australian and an American - and it was not clear when or where they would be freed.

But Mr Ghani noted in his speech that "their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists".

He added that the release of the two professors would "pave the way" for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taleban, who long have refused to negotiate with Mr Ghani's administration.

Mr Ghani, flanked by his top security advisors, said the decision to release the three Taleban prisoners had been "very hard and necessary".

In August 2016, gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped two professors of the American University of Afghanistan in the heart of Kabul.

The two, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, later appeared looking haggard in a Taleban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that Mr King was in poor health.

The elite American University of Afghanistan opened in 2006 and has attracted a number of faculty members from Western countries.

The US and the Australian embassies in Kabul declined to provide immediate comment. American University also did not comment.

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