Mon, 13 Jul 2020

KABUL -- Afghan authorities say they have released 100 Taliban prisoners as part of the government's response to a three-day cease-fire the militants called to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The 100 Taliban prisoners were released from Bagram, north of Kabul, on May 25 as 'a gesture of goodwill to advance peace efforts, including an extended cease-fire and the immediate start of direct talks' with the militants, National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal wrote in a tweet.

Faisal posted photos of the freed militants inside a bus.

The three-day truce started on May 24, a move swiftly welcomed by the government, which reciprocated by announcing plans to free up to 2,000 militant prisoners.

'There have been some minor security incidents today,' Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said. 'In general, there has been no major violation of the cease-fire today.'

Faisal told AFP that authorities plan to release prisoners in batches of 100 daily, adding: 'We hope this will eventually lead to a lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan so much desire and deserve.'

In February, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement aimed at ending the longest military action in U.S. history. The deal lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for security commitments from the Taliban.

It also stipulates that Kabul must free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants are to release 1,000 captives -- a move expected to lead to intra-Afghan negotiations.

President Ashraf Ghani said the government was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban, seen as key to ending a nearly two-decade-long war.

The latest release of Taliban prisoners brings to 1,100 the number of militants freed since early April, an official at the National Security Council told RFE/RL, while the militant group has freed 245 members of security forces, civil servants, and other people it had been holding.

In an address to the nation marking Eid al-Fitr, Ghani announced he would 'expedite the Taliban prisoner releases,' while urging the group to press ahead with the release of Afghan security personnel it holds.

A presidential spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, later on May 24 tweeted that Ghani "initiated a process to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture' in response to the Taliban's announcement of a cease-fire during Eid.

Sediqqi added that the government 'is extending the offer of peace and is taking further steps to ensure success of the peace process.'

However, Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission cautioned the government against releasing Taliban militants who committed war crimes.

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, described the cease-fire as 'a momentous opportunity' to accelerate a stalled U.S.-Taliban peace process.

'Other positive steps should immediately follow: the release of remaining prisoners as specified in the US-Taliban agreement by both sides, no returning to high levels of violence, and an agreement on a new date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations,' Khalizad wrote on Twitter.

The prospect of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban gained a boost on May 17 when Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing agreement nearly eight months after disputed elections that led to a parallel government and hampered efforts to broker a peace deal.

The United States has about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan. Washington pays about $4 billion a year to maintain the Afghan military.

Taliban militants control about half of Afghanistan's territory and have continued to carry out attacks since the deal was signed.

Afghan intelligence service spokesman Javid Faisal said on May 23 that at least 146 civilians were killed and 430 wounded in Taliban attacks during Ramadan.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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