ISLAMABAD - The Taliban said Thursday it has already released 845 Afghan security forces under an ongoing prisoner swap with the Kabul government and is working to free the remaining 155 in line with the insurgent group’s agreement with the United States.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen shared the details with VOA, insisting that his group was “fully committed” to the pact it signed with Washington to help set the stage as quickly as possible for launching peace talks with Afghan rivals to agree on a permanent cease-fire in Afghanistan.
Shaheen said that the Afghan government has so far released 4,050 Taliban prisoners out of the promised 5,000, as stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban deal. He again ruled out intra-Afghan peace talks until all Taliban prisoners are set free, according to a list the group shared with U.S. officials before inking the February 29 accord in Doha, Qatar.
But the prisoner swap details Shaheen shared with VOA contradict those Kabul has so far made public.
Afghan officials say they have freed more than 4,200 Taliban inmates and allege that nearly half of the government prisoners released by the insurgents are civilians, and not security forces.
Shaheen rejected the allegations, saying all the detainees the Taliban has freed were serving in Afghan army and police forces prior to being captured during battlefield attacks by insurgents.
“This is one of the lame excuses the Kabul administration has been using to slow down the (peace) process,” he said.
“We have video interviews with all of them in which they confessed and shared details of their respective units and areas or provinces they were captured from,” Shaheen said.
He spoke to VOA a day after Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said that the Taliban has not kept up its commitments agreed to in the peace deal.
“While the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces, in fact the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while,” McKenzie told VOA.
The U.S.-Taliban deal binds insurgents not to attack American and allied troops while they are drawing down from Afghanistan. It also requires the Taliban reduce violence in the run-up to intra-Afghan negotiations, including ceasing suicide and other bombings in urban centers.
The agreement requires all American and allied troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by July 2021 in return for Taliban counterterrorism assurances and pledges to seek political reconciliation with other Afghan groups.
On Tuesday, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said Washington was keeping its end of the deal.
“The United States agreed to reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and withdraw from five bases. We have met this obligation,” said Hoffman in a statement.
Increased Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces, particularly this week’s deadly suicide car bombing of the local office for the national spy agency in northern Samangan province, have drawn strong local and international condemnation.
The bomb-and-gun attack in the Samangan’s provincial capital, Aybak, which killed 11 people and injured more than 60 others, was the first such action since the Taliban sealed the deal with the U.S, and prompted Washington to also denounce it as a breach of insurgent commitments.
Shaheen, however, defended the attack saying it was a reaction to intensified night air raids by Afghan forces against civilians and Taliban fighters in insurgent-controlled districts.
“These attacks have martyred tens of our members and civilians in areas under our control in six Afghan provinces. That’s what prompted us to conduct the Samangan bombing. Other than this one incident, we have not launched any major attacks anywhere in Afghanistan,” the Taliban spokesman said.
Carla Babb contributed to this report.