Afghanistan to release senior Taliban prisoners in apparent swap
Kabul: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced Tuesday that three high-ranking Taliban prisoners would be released, in an apparent exchange for two Western hostages who were kidnapped by the insurgents in 2016.
The three Taliban prisoners include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.
"We have decided to conditionally release three Taliban prisoners who... have been in Bagram prison in the custody of the Afghan government for some time," Ghani said in an announcement at the presidential palace. He did not specify the fate of the Western hostages -- an Australian and an American -- and it was not clear when or where they would be freed.
But Ghani noted in his speech that "their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists".
He added that the release of the two professors would "pave the way" for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who long have refused to negotiate with Ghani's administration.
Ghani, flanked by his top security advisors, said the decision to release the three Taliban prisoners had been "very hard and necessary".
His announcement came one day after Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency chief Faiz Hameed met with Afghanistan's national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib in Kabul.
"They talked about improving the relation between the two countries," Afghanistan's national security council spokesman Kabir Haqmal said.
Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Taliban, a charge it denies. The Haqqani network was described by US Admiral Mike Mullen in 2011 as a "veritable arm" of Pakistani intelligence.
In August 2016, gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped two professors of the American University of Afghanistan in the heart of Kabul.
The two, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that King was in poor health.