Afghanistan has freed nearly 200 Taliban prisoners to spur long-delayed peace talks, as a team of negotiators readies to fly this week to Qatar’s capital, Afghan officials said on Wednesday.
The prisoners formed part of a group of 400 jailed “hardcore” Islamist separatists whose stalled release had appeared set to delay talks between the government and the insurgent group to end nearly two decades of war.
“The Afghan government has released another batch of the remaining Taliban prisoners and the work is still underway to move the prisoner exchange process forward,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said in a statement.
He did not give the exact number, however. Two officials said the releases from the main jail in the capital Kabul took place on Monday and Tuesday, at the same time that the Taliban freed six Afghan special forces.
About 120 prisoners remain to be freed in line with Taliban demands, including six whose release some Western governments, including Australia, have objected to.
“We want to finish the prisoner swap so we could start the peace process as soon as possible,” said a senior government official, who sought anonymity because the issue is sensitive.
A source close to the process said it could be completed by Wednesday.
A government-mandated negotiation team is likely to fly on Thursday to Doha, the initial venue for negotiations, said Fraidoon Kwazoon, the spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
“Tomorrow the team is leaving for Doha,” he told Reuters, without saying when talks were expected to start.
The 400 prisoners were the last of 5,000 whose release was agreed in a February pact between the United States and the Taliban allowing for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The release was a condition for the start of talks between the Taliban and the government, which also wants the militants to free 24 members of the Afghan special forces and pilots.
The government was reluctant to release the last 400 prisoners, whom it blamed for involvement in some of the worst violence. After freeing 80 last month, it delayed further releases as the Taliban dismissed calls for a ceasefire.
Wednesday’s release came amid a surge in Taliban violence and clashes with Afghan troops. In eastern Paktia province, a Taliban car bomb killed three Afghan security forces, a regional official said, while elsewhere, the defense ministry said, 24 Taliban were killed in the last 24 hours.
Thousands of Afghan security forces and civilians have been killed since the February peace deal, data from the United Nations and the government shows.