US envoy calls Afghan prisoner releases 'important step' for peace
The US special envoy who negotiated a deal with the Taliban said Monday that an initial prisoner exchange between the insurgents and the Afghan government was an "important step" toward peace.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Taliban on Sunday released 20 Afghan security-force prisoners. The move came after the government last week released hundreds of insurgent captives.
"The release of prisoners is an important step in the peace process and the reduction of violence," US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said on Twitter. "Both sides should accelerate efforts to meet targets specified in the US-Taliban agreement as soon as possible," he added, noting the exchange was more important than ever with prison populations threatened by coronavirus outbreaks.
The State Department later said that Khalilzad flew to Qatar for fresh meetings with Taliban representatives on overcoming the "challenges" to the deal. Khalilzad and the Taliban signed the February 29 accord that paves the way for US and other foreign forces to quit Afghanistan in return for various commitments from the insurgents.
The deal said the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners while the insurgents would free 1,000 Afghan security force personnel. The exchange was supposed to have happened by March 10, allowing peace talks to begin between the Taliban and the Afghan government -- but the process has been beset with problems.
Kabul has claimed the Taliban want 15 of their "top commanders" to be released, while the insurgents have accused Afghan authorities of needlessly wasting time. A small Taliban team met with the government to discuss a comprehensive prisoner swap last week, but walked out of talks after officials began releasing prisoners only gradually.
On Sunday, the Taliban told AFP that their decision to release a group of prisoners was "a goodwill step ... to accelerate the prisoner exchange process".
Kabul says it has now released 300 low-risk Taliban prisoners, who have pledged not to return to the fight and are being let go based on various factors including their health, age and length of remaining sentence.
Among those freed was Shams-ul-Rahman, 26, from Bagram district in Parwan province outside Kabul. He said he was released from Bagram prison last Wednesday having served more than five years, during which time he was locked up alongside Islamic State fighters, Taliban members and drug dealers. "On Wednesday, the prison officials gave us new clothes and we were released with 99 other inmates and given 5,000 afghanis ($65) in cash," Rahman told AFP.
Local authorities told AFP that Rahman had been in the Taliban, though Rahman denied links to the group. "The last 19 years of war have shown that nobody will be victorious through war," he said.