Kabul re­leases three Tal­iban mil­i­tants for western hostages

The National - News - - NEWS | WORLD - STE­FANIE GLINSKI Kabul

The Afghan govern­ment yes­ter­day re­leased three high-rank­ing Tal­iban com­man­ders in ex­change for two kid­napped western­ers.

The three men be­long to the Haqqani net­work, con­sid­ered to be one of the most bru­tal wings of the Tal­iban.

Tal­iban spokesman Zabi­ul­lah Mu­jahid con­firmed the re­lease and told The Na­tional the trio would travel to Qatar. Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani said the re­lease would be con­di­tional and in ex­change for the univer­sity pro­fes­sors.

Anas Haqqani, the youngest son of Jalalud­din Haqqani, the move­ment’s founder, was re­leased with Mili Khan and Hafiz Rashid, the brother of Mo­ham­mad Omari, a for­mer Guan­tanamo in­mate who now lives in Doha.

Anas Haqqani and Omari were ar­rested in Afghanista­n’s Khost Prov­ince in 2014; Khan is be­lieved to have been ar­rested by the US in Pak­tika prov­ince in 2011. All three were held in a pri­son near the Ba­gram air­base, north of Kabul.

US cit­i­zen Kevin King and Aus­tralian Ti­mothy Weekes, both pro­fes­sors at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Kabul, were kid­napped in Au­gust 2016.

Their health had been de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, with Mr King re­port­edly suf­fer­ing heart and kid­ney prob­lems, and Mr Weekes, in a video mes­sage re­leased by the Tal­iban, pleaded for US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to save him, say­ing that “if we stay here for much longer, we will be killed. I don’t want to die here”.

The Tal­iban said they were try­ing to get med­i­cal help to the hostages.

“We have tried to treat him [Kevin King] from time to time, but we do not have med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties as we are in a war sit­u­a­tion,” the group said.

The pris­oner swap may of­fer a chance for Kabul to be­gin di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban. The group has long re­fused to for­mally meet the govern­ment.

“The pris­oner-hostage swap is es­sen­tial to get US-Tal­iban ne­go­ti­a­tions started again, after Mr Trump had de­clared them dead,” said Thomas Rut­tig, co-direc­tor of the Afghanista­n An­a­lysts Net­work.

“US spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive Zal­may Khalilzad needs to show some­thing to the pres­i­dent, to per­suade him to switch the green light on again for these talks. The re­lease of the US and the Aus­tralian pro­fes­sors could be it.”

Peace ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the US and the Tal­iban were can­celled by Mr Trump in Septem­ber on Twit­ter, end­ing a di­a­logue that had started at the be­gin­ning of the year.

Mr Khalilzad has since worked hard on the ex­change of pris­on­ers and hostages.

“Suc­cess­ful US-Tal­iban ne­go­ti­a­tions are the only way to get di­rect govern­ment-Tal­iban peace ne­go­ti­a­tions go­ing, which the Tal­iban still refuse be­fore a fi­nalised agree­ment with the US,” Mr Rut­tig said.

AP

Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani in­sisted that the mil­i­tants’ re­lease would be con­di­tional

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