Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

Skype call puts Afghan peace process back on track

Practising social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Afghan government and the Taliban discussed prisoner swaps online

The Taliban and the Afghan government held a “virtual” meeting on prisoner releases on Sunday, officials said, offering some hope of a breakthrough on a matter that has deadlocked the two sides and jeopardised a nascent peace process.

An impasse over the method of release for Taliban prisoners had stalled talks amid a sharp increase in Taliban attacks against government positions.

The Afghan government initially refused to release any prisoners at all, but later committed to a phased and conditional release of the 5,000 prisoners promised in the US peace deal with the Taliban signed in Doha on February 29.

But the group has demanded all prisoners are released in one go in return for 1,000 Afghan forces.

The agreement, signed by a Taliban official and the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, laid a framework for bringing an end to America’s longest war, which began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The prisoner swap was supposed to take place before the start of inter-Afghan peace negotiations, originally set for March 10.

“Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent,” Mr Khalilzad tweeted on Sunday after the two-hour Skype video conference.

He said “all sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire”.

The Taliban had previously refused to speak to the Afghan government until all prisoners were released.

A statement by Afghanistan National Security Council said: “Both sides exchanged options on initial technical steps for the release of prisoners.”

It said a reduction in violence, direct talks and a permanent ceasefire were also discussed.

The Afghan government and the Taliban have clashed frequently in the past few days.

Authorities blamed the storming of an Afghan military base on Friday on the insurgent group.

The Taliban’s Doha office spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, also confirmed on Twitter that the meeting had happened but stressed that the discussion covered only the release of prisoners.

Updated: March 23, 2020 11:00 AM

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