KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday that his government would free three Taliban prisoners in return for two university professors held hostage by the group since 2016. Addressing the media, Ghani said his decision was part of efforts to engage in direct talks with the Taliban and end the country’s decades-old conflict.
American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were in a critical condition, he added. Both were abducted outside the American University of Afghanistan, in Kabul, where they were lecturers.
Ghani described his decision to release the three Taliban prisoners as “hard but necessary,” and said he hoped the move would deter “intensified attacks.”
He added: “In consultations with our international partners, especially the US, we have adopted a mechanism and approach to make sure the release of these three men wouldn’t reinforce the (front) lines of the enemy and lead to intensified attacks by them.”
One of the three Taliban prisoners set to be released is Anas Haqqani, son of the founder of the Haqqani network — the Taliban’s mighty military wing which has been accused of high-profile attacks on foreign and government forces.
Until recently, government officials had insisted that freeing Haqqani was akin to crossing a red line for Ghani’s government which had been excluded from several rounds of talks between the Taliban and US diplomats in Qatar last year.
The meetings had been taking place until September this year when US President Donald Trump abruptly declared the negotiations “dead.”
News of the exchange deal follows an unofficial resumption of talks between the Taliban and US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who in the past had discussed the swapping of prisoners and visited Kabul and Pakistan in recent weeks to accelerate the process.
Some local media reported that the three Taliban prisoners had already been freed in Kabul and were flying to Qatar. However, government officials refused to comment on the matter when contacted by Arab News.
There was no reaction from the Taliban to Ghani’s announcement, which comes amid a deepening crisis related to a deadlock over election results.
Ghani is a frontrunner and — despite his objection to the secret talks between the Taliban and Khalilzad — has put peace negotiations with the Taliban as his priority if he wins the polls.