The Taliban said Monday they were ready for peace talks with the Afghan government, as authorities announced that the release of hundreds of militants accused of serious offenses would begin in the next few days.
The fate of some 400 Taliban prisoners has been a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides, which had committed to completing a prisoner exchange before negotiations could start.
On Sunday, thousands of prominent Afghans approved their release at the end of a three-day “loya jirga” — a traditional Afghan gathering of tribal elders and other stakeholders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues.
“Our stance is clear, if the prisoner release is completed, then we are ready for the intra-Afghan talks within a week,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP. Shaheen said the first round of talks would be held in Doha, Qatar.
“The Afghan government will start releasing the 400 Taliban prisoners within two days,” National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal told AFP.
The Afghan nation — including all its political leaders, intellectuals & representatives — showed unity, will, and consensus for peace in the #LoyaJirga. Can the rank and file of the Taliban show unity and will to start direct talks and end violence against Afghans? Let’s see! pic.twitter.com/yNyAdG1YaH
— Javid Faisal (@Javidfaisal) August 9, 2020
The prisoner exchange was a key part of a deal signed by the Taliban and the United States in February, which saw Washington agree to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for a pledge from the insurgents to hold peace talks with the Kabul government.
The much-delayed talks are aimed at ending the almost two-decades-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Shaheen said the Taliban delegation for peace talks would be led by Abbas Stanekzai, who was the group’s chief negotiator in talks with Washington ahead of the February deal.
The Afghan government has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates already, but authorities had balked at freeing the final 400 prisoners demanded by the Taliban.
The prisoners are accused of serious offenses including killing scores of Afghans and foreigners, with 44 insurgents of particular concern to the United States and other countries for their role in “high-profile” attacks.
In its final resolution, the jirga said it approved releasing the militants “to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public.”
The jirga urged the government to monitor the freed prisoners to ensure they did not return to the battlefield and demanded an immediate and lasting ceasefire in the country.
But Shaheen said the ceasefire would form part of the agenda during the negotiations with the Afghan government.
The family of French aid worker Bettina Goislard, who was murdered in Afghanistan in 2003, said they would not accept the release of her killers, who are on the list.
“Such a decision to free (them) made on the basis of horse-trading would be, to us, her family, inconceivable,” Bettina’s family told AFP.
Not all those who attended the jirga favored the release of militants.
Lawmaker Belquis Roshan, a prominent women’s rights activist, had protested against their release on the first day of the jirga, unfurling a banner that read: “Redeeming Taliban is national treason.”