Freed Taliban fighters will be ‘peace envoys,’ says Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this file photo taken on July 15, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 15 June 2019
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Freed Taliban fighters will be ‘peace envoys,’ says Ghani

  • President defends release of 490 militants as goodwill gesture

KABUL: Afghanistan has freed hundreds of jailed Taliban fighters since Eid as a goodwill gesture, the government confirmed on Friday.
Feroz Bashari, head of the government media center, told Arab News that “490 Taliban fighters have been freed since Eid.”
Brushing aside widespread criticism of the move, President Ashraf Ghani said on Thursday that most freed prisoners “will return to the battlefield, but will serve as peace envoys.”
The Taliban has long demanded that prisoners held in Afghan and US-run jails be freed as part of a possible future peace deal. The militants so far have refused to hold direct talks with government delegates, while meeting with US officials on several occasions.
The prisoner release, the biggest since Ghani assumed office in late 2014, has become a controversial issue in the deeply divided government, which has lost tens of thousands of troops in battle since the Taliban intensified attacks.
In an apparent response to criticism over the freeing of prisoners, Ghani told a gathering at the presidential palace that he was responding to calls made by the traditional assembly, or Loya Jirga, in April when scores of people urged him to release Taliban inmates.
“We are not going backward with regards to peace and serving the people,” Ghani said. “I accepted your suggestion and that of the Loya Jirga. Most of the released prisoners will become peace ambassadors and will not return to war.”
Government officials said a number of the freed men had “incurable illnesses, and some were elderly who had almost completed their sentences.”
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, on Thursday described the prisoner release as “a good step,” but said that only 261 out of those freed were Taliban fighters. The rest were falsely arrested by government and US-led troops.

FASTFACT

The Taliban has long demanded that prisoners held in Afghan and US-run jails be freed as part of a possible future peace deal.

John Bass, US ambassador to Afghanistan, praised Ghani’s move, saying it will “improve the climate for a political settlement.”
“Lasting peace will be rooted in reconciliation and forgiveness by all,” he said. The prisoner release has been widely attacked around the country, however.
Farmarz Tamana, a presidential candidate, said that with the Taliban stepping up attacks in recent months, Ghani’s decision “will reduce motivation among security forces.”
Taghyan Sakai, a university professor who lost a close relative in a recent Taliban attack, said the release will “harm the spirit of soldiers.” The former captives will return to battle as other prisoners had done in the past.
Fauzia Koofi, a former lawmaker, said that Ghani had the right to free or reduce the jail terms of criminals and other prisoners, but not of “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive, said the Taliban “has no intent and will for peace in Afghanistan.”


Sri Lanka expands visa-free scheme halted after bombings

Updated 10 min 40 sec ago
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Sri Lanka expands visa-free scheme halted after bombings

  • Sri Lanka initially projected a 30 percent dip in the number of foreign holidaymakers after the attacks
  • Sri Lanka welcomed a record 2.33 million tourists in 2018

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has re-introduced and expanded a visa-free entry scheme for visitors in a bid to revive its flagging tourism sector after the deadly Easter bombings, officials said Wednesday.
The concession for tourists from 39 nations was suspended after militants bombed three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo on April 21 killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners.
“As the security situation has improved, the cabinet of ministers decided to revive the visa-free scheme and also extended it to seven more countries,” the government said in a statement.
A tourism official said foreign governments have relaxed travel advisories for Sri Lanka since the attacks.
There has also been a lift in the number of arrivals, which nosedived soon after the bombings blamed on a home-grown militant group, the official said.
The new countries added to the expanded scheme — which already allows travelers from the European Union, Australia and the United States to enter Sri Lanka without a visa — include China and India.
Visitors still have to obtain a visa on arrival, but the government has waived the $35 fee from August 1.
Sri Lanka initially projected a 30 percent dip in the number of foreign holidaymakers after the attacks.
The following month the number of tourists plunged to 37,800, down from 166,975 in April, according to official figures.
But they improved last month with some 63,000 visitors, although numbers are still down from 146,828 in June 2018.
Sri Lanka welcomed a record 2.33 million tourists in 2018, and was named the world’s top travel destination for 2019 by the Lonely Planet travel guide.