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Taliban Demand Swap of Haqqani Member, Others for Western Hostages

Australian Timothy Weeks, left, and American Kevin King are seen in a screengrab taken from video sent to VOA by the Taliban.

The Afghan Taliban is demanding freedom for a member of the militant Haqqani network along with other insurgent prisoners in exchange for the release of an American professor and his Australian colleague who were kidnapped two years ago, officials revealed Tuesday.

Kevin King, 60, and Timothy Weeks, 48, from Australia were teaching at Kabul's American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) before gunmen took them hostage near the campus in August 2016.

“We believe that they were kidnapped by the Haqqani network, and the reason we believe that is because the abductors did make a demand after they were kidnapped for the release of one of the Haqqani family members who is being held by the Afghan government,” said Kenneth Holland, the president of the AUAF.

Holland was apparently referring to death row prisoner Annas Haqqani, who is the youngest son of Jalaluuddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani network. The United States has declared the network a global terrorist.

Holland spoke to reporters in Kabul in connection with the second anniversary of the abduction of King and Weeks. He again called for the insurgents to immediately release his two English professors.

Holland said his university has seen some videos made by the captors but other than that, they have very little information about where King and Weeks are being held and whether they are in Afghanistan or some other country.

“Their health is deteriorating and their lives are in danger. They do not have access to medical treatment, and they are being held in a very cruel and inhuman manner,” Holland noted without further elaboration. “So, we ask the captors immediately to release these two gentlemen and to let them return to their loved ones, let them go back to their homes. This is the moral thing to do. This is the right thing to do under Islam ... to release these two innocent individuals.”

Holland said the AUAF is working closely with Afghan, U.S. and Australian governments to secure the freedom of King and Weeks. He explained the kidnappers have not asked for any ransom money, and the university has no influence over the Afghan government to secure a prisoner exchange deal.

$1 million reward

Holland noted that he discussed the prisoner exchange issue with President Ashraf Ghani and understood the compulsions facing the Afghan government on the matter.

“Basically, these prisoners are terrorists. They were charged with very serious crimes, including murder. They were convicted of those crimes, and they were sentenced to death. I think the Afghan people are demanding justice because they are the victims of these terrorist acts,” Holland said.

The U.S. has posted a $1 million reward for any information leading to the safe recovery of King.

Just weeks after the kidnapping incident, heavily armed militants attacked the AUAF campus. The raid killed 15 people, including students, professors and security personnel.

The U.S. government has since provided funds to upgrade the security of the university where international staff is still undertaking teaching jobs, though they are no longer allowed to live off campus as they did before, Holland said.

In October 2017, the Taliban released a video message from the two Western hostages, stating King's deteriorating health condition required urgent and better medical treatment for him. The Islamist insurgency at the time called for acceptance of its demands for the safe release of King and Weeks.

In an earlier video message from the hostages, both men urged U.S. President Donald Trump and the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to negotiate their freedom with the Taliban.

The Taliban has repeatedly said they have forwarded their demands to relevant officials but it had never revealed the identity of prisoners they want in exchange for the two hostages.

While responding to the Taliban video at the time, U.S. officials said the administration was committed to seeing its citizens returned safely to their families and that the department worked closely with agencies across the government to do so. They also urged the kidnappers to swiftly release the hostages.