The Taliban released a first group of 20 prisoners on Sunday, effectively moving forward a crucial swap with the Afghanistan government aimed at kick-starting peace talks between Afghan parties to the war.
The insurgent move follows the release of 300 Taliban prisoners over the past few days, including 100 freed on Sunday, by the government.
“Today, 20 prisoners of the Kabul administration will be released by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and handed over to ICRC in Kandahar,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted.
The prisoner exchange is part of a landmark February 29 deal the United States signed with the Taliban in Qatar with a goal to finding a negotiated end to the Afghan war, now in its 19th year.
The agreement requires Afghan authorities to set free up to 5,000 insurgent inmates and the Taliban to free 1,000 detainees, mostly Afghan security forces, before intra-Afghan peace negotiations could begin.
The prisoner swap was to be completed before March 10 when peace talks were supposed to start. But reluctance on part of the Afghan government, which was kept out of the deal, prevented implementation of the two key elements in the agreement.
Critics say the extremely slow pace of the prisoner swap means it will be weeks if not months before intra-Afghan talks could begin.
The much-awaited visible progress in the prisoner swap follows Friday’s meeting between General Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Taliban leaders in the Qatari capital of Doha, which hosts the insurgent group’s political office.
"General Miller met with Taliban leadership last night as part of the military channel established in the agreement. The meeting was about the need to reduce the violence,” a U.S. military spokesman told VOA on Saturday.
Taliban spokesman Shaheen while sharing details of the meeting said the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s “violations, particularly attacks and night raids in non-combat areas, came under serious discussion.” He added that the Taliban delegation “called for a halt to such attacks.”
The U.S. military denies the allegations as baseless, saying the agreement allows foreign troops to act in defense of Afghan security forces if attacked by the Taliban.
The accord requires insurgents not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces, who have committed to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan by July 2021, ending Washington’s longest overseas military intervention.
In additional to engaging in peace and reconciliation talks with other Afghan groups, the Taliban is also committed under the agreement not allow translational terrorists to use Afghan soil for future attacks against America and its allies.
Progress toward ending hostilities in Afghanistan is considered crucial because of the looming coronavirus outbreak. The war-ravaged country confirmed Sunday the pandemic has infected more than 600 Afghans and killed at least 18.
The Kabul government and the Taliban have launched separate counter COVID-19 campaigns in areas under their control but international stakeholders have called for both to cease violence and work together to fight the deadly disease.