Kabul releases three Taliban militants for western hostages
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.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insisted that the militants’ release would be conditional