Taliban Free Two Western Hostages in Prisoner Swap

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) — The Taliban released two Western hostages in southern Afghanistan Tuesday, handing them over to U.S. forces more than three years after they were abducted in Kabul, insurgent sources and police said.

The release of American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, both professors at the American University in Kabul, comes one week after President Ashraf Ghani said that Afghanistan would free three high-ranking Taliban prisoners in an apparent swap that he hoped would help jumpstart peace talks.

“This morning at around 10 a.m. two American University professors were released in Nawbahar district of Zabul province. They were flown out of Zabul by American helicopters,” a police source said.

Three Taliban sources in the province also said the hostages had been released, with one saying they had been brought there by car.

“We released the professors and are now expecting the Kabul government and Americans to release our three prisoners as soon as possible,” one of them told Agence France-Presse.

A diplomatic source in Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office, said the three insurgent prisoners had arrived there Tuesday in preparation for a handover, but had not yet been released.

There was no immediate comment Tuesday from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Afghan officials in Kabul said they would release a statement soon.

The American University in Kabul said it “shares the relief of the families” of the hostages.

“The AUAF community, our students, faculty and staff, have keenly felt the absence of our two colleagues even as we have continually urged their release over these past three years,” a statement from the university said.

King and Weeks were kidnapped by gunmen wearing military uniforms in the heart of Kabul in August 2016.

They later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents saying that King was in poor health.

Ghani said Tuesday that the pair’s health had been “deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists.”

Ghani announced the exchange on Nov. 12, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison north of Kabul would be “conditionally” released.

They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother Sirajuddin is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

Afghan authorities accuse Anas of being a high-level player in the network. The Taliban has long demanded his release, insisting he is a student.

The other two Taliban prisoners to be released are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar.

Ghani had said he hoped the swap would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with the Kabul administration.

Over the past year Washington and the Taliban have been holding direct talks, seeking an agreement that many hoped would pave the way for U.S. troops to begin leaving Afghanistan and for the militants to start negotiations with Kabul.

They were on the verge of a deal when President Donald Trump scuttled the talks in September.

Most observers agree that a political settlement is the only way towards lasting peace in Afghanistan, and both the United States and the Taliban left the door open for talks to resume.

The prisoner swap could indicate a breakthrough of sorts.

The Taliban had included Anas Haqqani’s name in a negotiating team in February, and the group’s spokesman said at the time that he had been captured by the Americans, and “should be released to better help with the talks.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said Tuesday that he hoped the release would give a “boost of confidence” on all sides to re-engage with talks.

Islamabad — which denies accusations from Washington and Kabul that it supports the Taliban — has helped facilitate the talks between the United States and the insurgents, and Khan suggested Tuesday that it had also played a role in the hostages’ release.

Pakistan “has fully supported & facilitated this release as part of its policy of supporting initiatives for a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict,” he tweeted.

© Agence France-Presse

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