Afghan president orders release of 500 Taliban prisoners as Eid truce begins
Ashraf Ghani says militants to be freed will not include those requested by the Taliban as part of prisoner swap
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani on Friday ordered the release of 500 Taliban prisoners as part of a new ceasefire that could lead to long-delayed peace talks with the insurgents.
Mr Ghani announced the move at the start of a three-day ceasefire offered by the Taliban for Eid Al Adha.
"To show goodwill and accelerate the peace talks, we will release 500 Taliban prisoners in response to the group's three-day ceasefire announcement," Mr Ghani said in an Eid address.
The were no reports of violence as the ceasefire began, but a car bomb in Logar province killed at least 18 people including security forces on Thursday night. The Taliban said they were not responsible.
Mr Ghani said the release of the militants would be done during the holiday, and would fulfil the government's pledge to free 5,000 Taliban fighters as outlined in a peace deal between the Taliban and the United States.
However, the 500 inmates are not on the original list of 5,000 demanded by the Taliban.
Kabul authorities have already released 4,600 of those prisoners but are hesitating about the release of the final 400, deeming them too dangerous.
"I do not have the right to decide on the release of those 400 Taliban prisoners who are accused of serious crimes," Mr Ghani said, adding that a gathering of Afghan elders would decide their fate.
The Taliban, who have insisted on the release of those 400 militants, did not immediately comment.
The US-Taliban accord signed in February stipulated Kabul would release 5,000 insurgents in return for 1,000 government forces held captive by the militant group.
Late Thursday, the Taliban claimed they had completed the release of all 1,000 government prisoners.
The contentious prisoner swap is a key precondition for the Taliban to enter into peace talks with the government for the first time in their 19-year insurgency.
Both Mr Ghani and the Taliban signalled this week they were ready for talks after Eid, provided the prisoner swap is completed.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who led Washington's negotiations with the Taliban at the group's political office in Doha, is currently visiting regional players including Mr Ghani in Kabul to push for the prisoner exchange to be completed and the start of peace talks.
Since signing the February deal, the Taliban have largely refrained from attacking cities and have not hit US troops.
But they have conducted near-daily attacks on Afghan forces and civilians.
Highlighting the recent toll, Ghani this week said more than 3,500 Afghan troops and nearly 800 civilians had been killed since the deal was signed.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has blamed the Taliban for the bulk of civilian casualties during the first half of 2020.
Updated: July 31, 2020 12:30 PM