Start of Afghan talks uncertain as prisoner release stalls

By: AFP      Published: 11:28 AM, 18 Aug, 2020
Start of Afghan talks uncertain as prisoner release stalls

Afghan authorities and the Taliban have hit an impasse over the planned release of hundreds of insurgents after opposition from some foreign governments, officials said Monday, apparently stalling peace talks.

The negotiations were expected to begin within days after prominent Afghans met in Kabul on August 9 and approved the release of 400 Taliban prisoners -- including many involved in deadly attacks -- removing a crucial precondition to talks.

While Afghan authorities freed 80 Taliban prisoners on Thursday, there have been no further releases since then.

"There is no plan to release any prisoner today also," an official with the country's National Security Council told AFP on Monday.

President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said "two countries had shared their concerns and reservations" about six or seven prisoners among the 400.

"The Afghan government is working with its partners to address the concerns about these prisoners," he told reporters.

Sediqqi did not name the countries, but Paris and Canberra have objected to the release of several insurgents accused of killing French and Australian nationals and soldiers.

Bettina Goislard, a French employee of the UN's refugee agency, was murdered by two Taliban militants in 2003, and a former Afghan soldier killed five French troops and injured 13 others in 2012 in Kapisa province.

France is "firmly opposed to the liberation of individuals sentenced for crimes against French nationals, especially soldiers and humanitarian workers," the foreign ministry said Saturday.

"We have consequently asked Afghan authorities not to proceed with the liberation of these terrorists."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week said he had lobbied against the release of a former Afghan army soldier who went rogue and killed three Australian partners.

Ghani himself has warned that the 400 militants were a "danger to the world".

Their release is part of a prisoner swap agreed in February between the Taliban and Washington as a precondition for peace talks.

That deal stipulated that Kabul release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for 1,000 Afghan security personnel held by the militants.

Afghan authorities say they too have released almost all prisoners, except those remaining from the 400.

The Taliban claim to have released all the 1,000 captives, but Sediqqi said the insurgents were still holding some Afghan soldiers.

"They should have completed this release by now. This exchange cannot be a one-way road," Sediqqi said, adding Taliban violence remained "very high".

The Taliban have said they are willing to begin peace talks "within a week" after all 400 prisoners are freed, and blamed Kabul for delaying the negotiations.

"The matter is stalled because the other side is not releasing the remaining prisoners despite promises," Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP.

Washington has pushed for the release of the militants.