US, Aus­tralian hostages freed by pris­oner swap

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - WEATHER - By Kathy Gan­non

IS­LAM­ABAD >> The Tal­iban on Tues­day freed an Amer­i­can and an Aus­tralian held hostage since 2016 in ex­change for three top Tal­iban fig­ures — a move that the in­sur­gent group as­serted could help rekin­dle talks to end Afghanista­n’s 18-year war.

The hostages — Amer­i­can Kevin King and Aus­tralian Ti­mothy Weeks — were re­leased in an area of south­ern Afghanista­n heav­ily con­trolled by the Tal­iban, end­ing more than three years of cap­tiv­ity since they were ab­ducted out­side the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Kabul, where both had been pro­fes­sors.

A Tal­iban state­ment that fol­lowed the swap, which freed the younger brother of Si­ra­jud­din Haqqani, the head of the fear­some Haqqani net­work, called the ex­change a “con­fi­dence­build­ing mea­sure” that could help bring an end to Afghanista­n’s end­less war.

Anas Haqqani, along with an un­cle, Ha­jji Malik

Khan, and a Haqqani lieu­tenant, Hafiz Rashid Khan, were re­leased by the Afghan govern­ment on Mon­day and flown to Qatar, where the ex­trem­ist group has a po­lit­i­cal of­fice in the cap­i­tal, Doha.

The U.S. State Depart­ment said in a state­ment that King and Weeks were in the care of the U.S. mil­i­tary, where they were re­cov­er­ing and would soon be re­u­nited with their loved ones.

The two were re­leased in south­ern Zabul prov­ince’s Naw Ba­har district, a re­gion largely un­der Tal­iban con­trol, ac­cord­ing to a Tal­iban of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he wasn’t au­tho­rized to talk to the me­dia. King and Weeks were handed over to U.S. forces and trans­ported from the area in a U.S. heli­copter.

“We are so happy to hear that my brother has been freed and is on his way home to us,” said King’s sis­ter, Stephanie Miller. “This has been a long and painful or­deal for our en­tire fam­ily, and his safe re­turn has been our high­est pri­or­ity. We ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port we have re­ceived and ask for pri­vacy as we await Kevin’s safe re­turn.”

Their free­dom came hours af­ter the Afghan govern­ment re­leased the three Tal­iban pris­on­ers, pre­sum­ably af­ter se­cur­ing as­sur­ances from the Qatar govern­ment that they will re­main in Qatar and not re­turn to the bat­tle­field.

In 2014 the Qatar govern­ment ac­cepted five se­nior Tal­iban who were re­leased from Guan­tanamo Bay pri­son by U.S. Pres­i­dent Barak Obama in ex­change for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Ber­dahl.

The five, in­clud­ing some ac­cused of crimes that in­cluded or­ches­trat­ing the slay­ings of 2,000 Shi­ite Mus­lims in north­ern Afghanista­n, were for­bid­den from leav­ing Doha.

How­ever, they were al­lowed to join the Tal­iban team ne­go­ti­at­ing di­rectly with Wash­ing­ton’s peace en­voy Zal­may Khalilzad. Anas Haqqani’s name was also put on the ne­go­ti­a­tion team even as he lan­guished in an Afghan pri­son.

RAHMAT GUL — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Then-Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani speaks on the last day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meet­ing in Kabul, Afghanista­n.

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