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Afghanistan, Taliban To Begin Prisoner Releases At End Of Month

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks earlier this month in Jalalabad. Ghani's dispute with Abdullah Abdullah over election results has been cited as one reason for the delay in organizing prisoner releases with the Taliban, a key stipulation in a peace deal announced last month.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks earlier this month in Jalalabad. Ghani's dispute with Abdullah Abdullah over election results has been cited as one reason for the delay in organizing prisoner releases with the Taliban, a key stipulation in a peace deal announced last month.

Prisoners affiliated with the Taliban will soon be released from Afghan lockups, in a move that's likely to kick off peace talks between Afghanistan and the Islamist insurgent group. On Wednesday, a pair of Taliban spokesmen and a U.S. official confirmed the prisoner release — a key condition in the peace framework between the militants and the U.S. announced about a month ago.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, who has been leading U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, said the militant group and the Afghan government agreed to begin releasing their respective prisoners on March 31.

"This is a positive development," he tweeted Wednesday, after an hours-long video conference between representatives of the Afghan government, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.S. and the Gulf state of Qatar. "Technical meetings will continue to make sure the process goes smoothly."

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in comments to NPR earlier, echoed that timeline. Another Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, explained Wednesday on Twitter that the Taliban would send a technical delegation to the Bagram prison, a complex on the outskirts of Kabul, to verify the prisoners being released.

The prisoner release is expected to kick off the process of inter-Afghan peace talks, which have been in doubt for weeks despite a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban late last month. The deal, which lays a framework for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, stipulated the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in Afghan government detention as a goodwill gesture.

Up to 1,000 Afghan soldiers held by Taliban were also to be released.

But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani initially balked at the timing laid out in the agreement. And recent weeks have seen the country politically paralyzed by a dispute between Ghani and his principal challenger for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah, over last year's election results.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. had decided to slash $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan after Pompeo failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah. Pompeo prevented movement on negotiations with the Taliban.

The proposed inter-Afghan talks, intended to end the four-decade-long conflict in the country and create a power-sharing accord, are part of a broader deal that will see most American and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months. In return, the Taliban agree not to host militant groups that could harm the security of the United States, and to comply with a partial reduction in violence.

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