KABUL • The Afghan government and the Taleban are “on the verge of peace talks” after thousands of prominent Afghans approved the contentious release of about 400 militant prisoners, the head of Kabul’s peace council said yesterday.
The fate of the prisoners 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.
The resolution was passed at the end of a three-day “loya jirga” – a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders 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 Taleban,” jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced.
According to an official list, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, including attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners, with over 150 on death row.
The jirga urged the government to give assurances that those released will not be allowed to return to the battlefield, adding that foreign fighters should be sent back to their countries.
It also demanded a “serious, immediate and lasting ceasefire”.
“The decision of the loya jirga has removed the last obstacles… We are on the verge of peace talks,” said Mr Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the government’s peace process and was named head of the jirga.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign a decree to release the prisoners yesterday.
“The Taleban should now demonstrate that they are not afraid of a nationwide ceasefire,” he said.
The Afghan government has released almost 5,000 Taleban inmates, but the authorities had baulked at freeing the final prisoners demanded by the Taleban.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pushed for the release of the detainees, while recognising the decision would be “unpopular”.