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.
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.”