Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Taliban frees Western hostages in prisoner swap

Three Taliban commanders landed in Qatar after being released as part of the deal

Kidnapped teachers American Kevin King (left) and Timothy Weeks. AP
Kidnapped teachers American Kevin King (left) and Timothy Weeks. AP

The Taliban has freed two Western teachers who it held for more than three years, in exchange for the release of three of the group's senior commanders who landed in Qatar on Tuesday.

The Westerners released to American forces by the Taliban include an American, Kevin C King, 63, and an Australian, Timothy J Weeks, 50, who were teaching at the American University in Kabul when they were abducted in 2016.

The key figure set to be returned to the Taliban is Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s military operations leader and a leading fund-raiser before he was captured in 2014.

The exchange was brokered, in part, by the American peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who had earlier negotiated a tentative agreement with the Taliban that would have included terms of an American troop withdrawal. But those talks were abruptly aborted by President Trump in September.

The Afghan government’s decision to carry out the swap is seen as critical to securing direct talks with the militants, who have, until now, refused to engage with what they call an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

The sources, including one in Qatar, said their hostages, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, would be released later on Tuesday.

“Our three prisoners had been freed on Monday night,” said one of the sources, a senior Taliban leader in Afghanistan.

“Soon after their release, they were flown to Doha and handed over to the political office in Qatar.”

Qatar is home to the political leadership of the Taliban.

On Saturday, the Afghan government delayed the exchange of three senior Taliban prisoners for two foreign hostages announced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The government “will review the exchange process in light of Afghanistan’s national interests,” a government spokesperson said.

Mr Ghani announced the exchange last week, saying the Taliban prisoners held at Bagram prison would be “conditionally” released.

They include Anas Haqqani, who was seized in 2014 and whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.

King and Weeks – both university professors – were kidnapped in Kabul in August 2016 by gunmen wearing military uniforms.

Mr Ghani said the hostages’ “health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.

He said the release of King and Weeks would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with Mr Ghani’s administration.

Updated: November 19, 2019 01:20 PM

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