Afghan jirga approves prisoner release

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Of the 400 contentious Taliban militants to be released, over 150 are on death row for serious crimes

The Afghan government and the Taliban are “on the verge of peace talks” after thousands of prominent Afghans approved the release of about 400 contentious militant prisoners, the head of Kabul’s peace council said on Sunday. The prisoners’ fate has been a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides, which had committed to completing a prisoner exchange before negotiations can start.

Three-day meeting

The resolution was passed at the end of a three-day “loya jirga” — a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues. “In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban,” jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced.

According to an official list seen by AFP, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, including many involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners, with more than 150 of them on death row.

The jirga urged the government to give assurances to the population that the released prisoners would be monitored and would not be allowed to return to the battlefield, adding that foreign fighters should be sent back to their respective countries.

It also demanded a “serious, immediate and lasting ceasefire” in the country.

“The decision of the loya jirga has removed the last excuse and obstacles on the way to peace talks. We are on the verge of peace talks,” said Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the government’s peace process and was appointed head of the loya jirga. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign a decree to release the prisoners on Sunday. “The Taliban should now demonstrate that they are not afraid of a nationwide ceasefire,” he said. The Afghan government has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates, but authorities had baulked at freeing the final prisoners demanded by the Taliban.

High-profile attacks

The prisoners include 44 insurgents of particular concern to the United States and other countries for their role in “high-profile” attacks. Five are linked to the 2018 attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners. A Taliban militant involved in the massive May 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul is also on the list.

The family of French aid worker Bettina Goislard who was murdered in Afghanistan in 2003 said they would not accept the release of her killers, who are on the list. The decision has raised hopes for talks, however. “Based on the information I have, the intra-Afghan talks would begin within two to three days after the release of the 400 Taliban prisoners,” former President Hamid Karzai told the jirga.

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