The Afghan government released dozens more Taliban prisoners on Thursday, beginning the final phase of a detainee swap agreed in a deal between the U.S. and the insurgent group. Officials said 80 men were allowed to walk out of prison this week. The release of the remaining 320 or so represents what should be the last barrier to long-awaited direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Afghan officials have now freed about 3,000 Taliban suspects from prison in exchange for the release of around 1,000 government forces from Taliban custody. The release of the last 400 militants, whom Afghan President Ashraf Ghani describes as “dangerous” individuals, has been hanging up the wider peace process aimed at eventually ending the violence that has plagued Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Javid Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, confirmed that the government released 80 Taliban convicts on Thursday from among the final 400, “to speed up efforts for the direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire.”
Faisal did not say when the remaining inmates might be freed, and neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban has suggested a start date for the crucial face-to-face talks between the two sides.
Thus far the Taliban has refused to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a puppet of the U.S. and insisting on talks only with American officials. The start of the direct “intra-Afghan talks” is considered a vital step in the peace process.
Baz Muhammad, a Taliban suspect who had been jailed on a kidnapping conviction, was among the 80 people freed on Thursday. He said he hoped for peace in his country, and urged both sides to agree to a long-term ceasefire.