Taliban rule out taking part in Afghan talks until prisoners released

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The agreement calls for up to 5,000 jailed Taliban prisoners to be released in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives by March 10

Taliban militants will not take part in intra-Afghan talks until about 5,000 of their prisoners are released, a spokesman said on Monday, presenting a major possible barrier to ending the war.

Under an accord between the United States and the Islamist Taliban signed on Saturday, the two sides are committed to working towards the release of combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure.

The agreement calls for up to 5,000 jailed Taliban prisoners to be released in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives by March 10.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, not involved in the talks, has rejected that demand.

“We are fully ready for the intra-Afghan talks, but we are waiting for the release of our 5,000 prisoners,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone.

“If our 5,000 prisoners – 100 or 200 more or less does not matter – do not get released there will be no intra-Afghan talks.”

The United States has said it hopes negotiations towards a permanent political settlement and ceasefire can start in coming days, but Western diplomats and analysts see stark challenges ahead.

Ghani said on Sunday that US President Donald Trump had not asked for the release of the prisoners and that the issue of prisoner releases should be discussed as part of a comprehensive peace deal.

“The Afghan government has not made any commitment to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of any potential negotiation,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Ghani, said in response to the Taliban’s statements on Monday.

He added that the prisoner release “cannot be a requisite for talks”, and instead should be part of the negotiations.

A joint statement from the United States and the Afghan government says that the government would take part in discussions on the “feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides” but does not mention the specific number or timeframe.