Taliban prisoner swap begins as part of peace talks with Afghanistan

As part of efforts to reach a peace deal with the insurgent group, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has supported the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners.

The presidential decree allows all prisoners to send “a written promise that they will not return to the battlefield”

The Taliban also agreed to hand over 1,000 government troops, in return.

It comes as the US starts to withdraw troops from the country as part of a tied deal with the Taliban that was signed earlier. According to President Ghani’s order, all 1,500 inmates will be released within 15 days, “with 100 inmates walking every day out of Afghan jails.”

Parallel to the declaration there will be negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. When talks advance, the government promised to free 500 more Taliban prisoners every two weeks before 5,000 in total were released.

The Taliban will continue its reduction of violence as part of the agreement, and bar al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups from operating in areas under their jurisdiction.

The release of prisoners is intended to build trust between the two sides and set off direct talks to end the Afghan 18-year War. The talks were due to begin on Tuesday but demands on the release of the prisoner postponed the negotiations. 

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering

An unidentified member of the Taliban’s leadership council, speaking to the AFP news agency, said the party had presented a list of the hostages they wanted to be released. But he accused the government of acting in bad faith, claiming that it only intended to release “only elderly inmates, seriously sick, or those whose sentences have expired.”

A political spokesman for the Taliban, Suhail Shaheen, tweeted Tuesday that the party would recognize only prisoners listed on their list. 

Under the presidential decree, the government must release Taliban prisoners “based on their age, health status and the duration of their prison term.”

President Ghani had previously refused to release 5,000 inmates as part of the US Taliban deal, but Wednesday’s decree indicated a softening of his position.

America has agreed to reduce its forces from about 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days under the historic agreement, approved by the UN Security Council. Within 14 months, the US and its NATO allies agreed to withdraw all troops if the militants maintained the agreement.

America’s drawdown started on Monday but last week, after the US conducted an airstrike in response to Taliban fighters targeting Afghan forces in Helmand Province, the agreement appeared shaky. 

Fresh political instability has also compromised the country’s prospects for talks across all sides.

Two separate swearing-in ceremonies were held Monday after last year’s controversial presidential elections for two different politicians.

Afghanistan’s election commission says incumbent Mr. Ghani won the September vote narrowly, but Abdullah Abdullah alleges that the result is fake.

Experts warned that the current political competition during peace talks would be “seriously affecting the role of the government.”

In an apparent show of support for Mr. Ghani’s presidency, the Trump administration has also said it opposes “action to create a parallel government.”

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