ISLAMABAD - The Taliban freed a second batch of Afghan forces Thursday as part of a prisoner swap with the government in Kabul aimed at opening much-awaited peace talks between Afghan warring sides.
The extremely slow pace of progress in a U.S.-initiated peace process comes as the defense ministry said an overnight Taliban assault on an Afghan National Army (ANA) post in the eastern Logar province had killed at least nine security personnel.
"This attack was repelled by the brave forces of the ANA, and the Taliban attackers were defeated," the ministry said, adding that Afghan forces also inflicted heavy casualties on the insurgents, "and a number of their bodies remained on the battlefield."
There was no immediate comment from the insurgent group on the Logar fighting.
Prisoner swap and peace talks
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a statement Thursday that the group of 20 Afghan "soldiers and police personnel" were released near the capital of the eastern province of Laghman.
Over the past week, the insurgent group has released a total of 40 government detainees, and Kabul has freed 361 insurgent inmates.
The Taliban are required to free 1,000 detainees, mostly security forces, in exchange for 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the government.
The prisoner exchange is part of the landmark February 29 deal the United States sealed with the Taliban in Qatar to seek a negotiated settlement to the war, now in its 19th year.
The peace-building agreement requires U.S.-led foreign forces to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan by July 2021, which would end Washington's longest overseas military intervention.
In return, the Taliban would not attack foreign troops and would prevent the use of Afghan soil for international terrorist attacks. It is also obliged to open direct talks with other Afghan groups to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement.
However, the Taliban maintain under the pact with Washington that the intra-Afghan dialogue would begin only after the prisoner swap was completed.
Both sides were supposed to complete the swap before March 10, when the intra-Afghan negotiations were supposed to begin.
But the peace process suffered setbacks because of differences over how to move forward with the prisoner swap and a political crisis stemming from the disputed September 28 Afghan presidential election.
Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was officially declared the winner of the polls last month, but runner-up Abdullah Abdullah rejected the outcome as fraudulent. Both rival Afghan leaders held competing inaugurations last month, paralyzing governance in the war-shattered country.
Political dispute frustrates partners
The political bickering has frustrated Washington, and U.S. officials have been calling on both Afghan rivals to end the crisis by forming an inclusive government.
The Trump administration last month cut $1 billion in assistance for Afghanistan and vowed to cut another $1 billion next year unless the political dispute ends and an inclusive Afghan team opens talks with Taliban delegates.
The European Union mission in the country called on Afghan political leaders Thursday to reach an agreement and demonstrate unity for the well-being of Afghans "with the highest sense of urgency" in the wake of continued insecurity and dramatic new health risks. The mission was referring to the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Each day that passes without a consolidated governmental team exposes the Afghan population to greater dangers, undermines the credibility of the democratic institutions and discourages European partners," the statement lamented.
The national tally of COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan stood at around 850 as of Thursday, with at least 30 deaths amid concerns the war-torn nation's public health system is ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak.