ISLAMABAD - Chief U.S. peace negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad is back in Afghanistan and held fresh meetings with Afghan leaders on the fate of two Western hostages held by the Taliban and efforts aimed at restarting stalled peace talks with the insurgent group, sources said.
Insurgent sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have also confirmed to VOA that “(a) prisoners’ (swap) deal is underway” with Khalilzad's team and "is in the final stages." But when approached for comment, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA, “So far I have no information about this issue."
An Afghan government source confirmed to VOA Thursday the American envoy met with President Ashraf Ghani after arriving in Kabul the previous day from Pakistan. The discussions between the two, said the source, focused on American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, the two hostages being held by the Taliban for more than three years.
U.S. officials have not confirmed or released any details of the Khalilzad-Ghani meeting, but informed sources have said, getting hostages back is always at the forefront of US policy of seeking Afghan peace and reconciliation.
King and Weeks were teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul before they were kidnapped at gunpoint near the campus in August 2016.
Khalilzad also met with Ghani on Sunday in the Afghan capital prior to the brief stop in Pakistan. In a post-meeting news conference, a senior Afghan official confirmed the U.S. envoy sought cooperation in securing the release of the American professor, who is said to be suffering from serious health problems, and his Australian colleague. National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, however, refused to discuss further details.
The Taliban has long demanded the release of around a dozen high-profile prisoners held in Afghan jails in exchange for freeing King and Weeks. The insurgent detainees include death row prisoner Anas Haqqani, a younger brother of Taliban deputy chief Sirajuddin Haqqani, and their uncle, Mali Khan.
Khalilzad traveled to Pakistan on Monday and discussed “the current status of the Afghan peace process" with leaders in the neighboring country, said the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. He also underscored the importance of reducing violence in Afghanistan, it said.
Afghan officials allege Pakistan shelters Taliban leaders on its soil, charges Islamabad rejects. Pakistani officials maintain their country still hosts around 3 million Afghan refugees and do not rule out the possibility of insurgents hiding among them.
The U.S. Afghan reconciliation envoy’s back-and-forth visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan have fueled speculation a prisoner swap could soon materialize to pave the way for the resumption of peace talks involving the United States and the Taliban.
U.S. President Donald Trump canceled the negotiations, citing continued Taliban attacks in Kabul, including one that killed an American soldier.