Taliban wait for Afghan president to order release of fighters in prisoner swap
PESHAWAR/KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban sent vehicles for fighters set to be released by the Afghan government in a prisoner swap expected to be announced on Tuesday, and were ready to honour their side of the deal by handing over 1,000 captured government troops, militant leaders said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will issue a decree for at least 1,000 Taliban prisoners to be released this week, Reuters reported on Monday, paving the way for opening direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents.
A senior Taliban leader in Doha, the capital of Qatar where negotiations between the militants and US officials have taken place, said vehicles had been sent to an area near Bagram Prison to fetch the freed fighters.
The prisoner release is part of a deal signed by the United States and the Taliban last month that allows US forces and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan to end more than 18 years of war.
The Taliban have demanded the release of the prisoners as a confidence-building measure.
Ghani, who was sworn in on Monday at a ceremony attended by US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, had earlier rejected the Taliban demand for its fighters to be released.
“After our conversation with Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday, in which he conveyed to us the release of our 5,000 prisoners, we sent vehicles to pick them up,” the senior Taliban leader said via phone from Doha.
It is unclear how many prisoners will be released immediately, but three other sources told Reuters on Monday that it could vary between 1,000 to 1,800. It was also unclear whether prisoners would be released from other prisons aside from Bagram.
The US Embassy declined to comment. A spokesman for NATO’s mission referred questions to the Afghan government.
The Taliban leader in Doha also confirmed the group had finalised arrangements for the release of 1,000 prisoners held by them, adding that they had shifted all prisoners to safe locations in Afghanistan.
“We are planning to release the 1,000 prisoners of the Afghan government to the Red Crescent and they could then shift them to their hometowns or pay them cash for travelling home,” he said.
An official Taliban spokesman said he co