KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Tuesday that his government has released three prominent Taliban figures in an effort to get the insurgents to free an American and an Australian professor they abducted in 2016 and have held captive for more than three years.
At a press event broadcast live on state television, Ghani told the nation the release was a hard decision he felt he had to make in the interest of the Afghan people.
The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Ghani, as President Donald Trump halted talks between the United States and the Taliban in September, after a deadly spate of Taliban attacks, including a Kabul suicide bombing that killed a U.S. soldier.
The future of Ghani's government is in doubt, as results from the Sept. 28 presidential elections have not been released yet. Preliminary results are expected on Thursday.
The three members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network that were released are Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid. Ghani said they are being released "conditionally in exchange" for the two professors.
The three were under the custody of the Afghan government, Ghani said, and were held at Bagram prison, an air base that also houses U.S. troops just outside Kabul. The Afghan president did not elaborate or say when or where the three were released. They were most likely sent to Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.
"In a demonstration of respect for humanity by the government and nation of Afghanistan, we decided to conditionally release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested in close cooperation with our international partners from other countries," Ghani said.
The Taliban have long demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, the deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network, often considered the strongest of the Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.
Anas Haqqani was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and handed over to the Afghan government, which sentenced him to death. It was not clear when his execution was supposed to take place.
The two captives held by the Taliban — an American identified as Kevin King and an Australian man identified as Timothy Weekes — were abducted in 2016 outside the American University in Kabul, where they both worked as teachers.
The following year, the Taliban released two videos showing the captives. A January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt. In the later video, King and Weekes looked healthier and said a deadline for their release had been set for June 16 that year.
Both said they were being treated well by the Taliban but appealed to their governments to help set them free. It was impossible to know whether they were forced to speak.
Subsequently, U.S. officials said that American forces had launched a rescue mission to free them, but they were not found at the raided location.
There was no immediate statement from the Taliban or any indication when or if they would release the captive American and Australian.
In Tuesday's address, Ghani said that the Taliban kidnapping of the two American University teachers was not representative of Islamic and Afghan traditions.
"We have decided to release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested outside of Afghanistan," Ghani said, "to facilitate direct peace negotiations."
The American University of Afghanistan said it welcomed the development and was "encouraged to hear reports of the possible release of our two colleagues, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks."
The university that while it was not part of any negotiations with the Taliban or government, it continues "to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years."
Ghani said the release of the teachers was "part of our main demands during the indirect negotiations with the Taliban."
"We can assure the families of both teachers that we welcome and honor those who come to our country to pursue education," Ghani said.
Talks are under way about another round of "intra-Afghan dialogue," this time in Beijing, which would include a wide selection of Afghan figures and Taliban representatives. The meeting was to take place in October but has been postponed with no new date set. The last time it was held was in July in Qatar.
The dialogue is a separate process from the U.S.-Taliban talks under U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad that collapsed in September.
The Taliban have refused to talk directly with the Kabul government, while Ghani insists his government must lead any talks with the Taliban.