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US released 11 Afghan Taliban leaders in Afghanistan under swap deal

07 October, 2019

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The United States on Sunday released 11 Afghan Taliban leaders in Afghanistan under a swap deal as part of a major confidence building measure to revive the peace process, at least two Taliban leaders said.

The freed Taliban include governors in Taliban rule for Kunar and Nimroz provinces Sheikh Abdul Rahim and Maulvi Rashid respectively and Aziz ur Rahman, also known as Ehsanullah, the nephew of the Taliban deputy chief Sirajuddin Haqqani.

A Taliban official said that the Taliban were freed from the Bagram prison under the US control and handed over to the Taliban leaders in the northern Baghlan province in their controlled areas.  He said the Taliban leaders were released in exchange for three Indian engineers, who were among a group of seven engineers kidnapped from Baghlan in May 2018.

Taliban never officially claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the Indian engineers. However, Taliban sources say the Indian engineers were held hostage by the Taliban.

The US, Taliban and the Afghan government did not offer any comments on the swap deal. However, dozens of Taliban social media handlers posted photographs and videos of the freed Taliban.

The issue of prisoners was prominently figured during the Taliban-US talks in Qatar and progress was made during the ninth round in August, according to Taliban sources.

A Taliban official says that Pakistan had been involved in mediation for the release of an American and an Australian professor, who Taliban had kidnapped from Kabul in 2016. There was an understanding that the professors would be exchanged with a group of Taliban inmates including Anas Haqqani, brother of Siraj Haqqani.

Anas was arrested by the American security officials in Bahrain in 2014 on return from Qatar along with another Taliban official. They were later handed over to the Afghan authorities.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had stated during his visits to Washington in July that there will be a good news within 48 hours about the two professors in Taliban custody but the exchange was delayed apparently due to the deadlock in the peace process.

The issue of prisoners exchange came under discussion in the talks in Islamabad between the Taliban and the US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week and as a first step the American security officials released 11 Taliban leaders to create trust and to move towards the revival of the peace process.

More Taliban prisoners, including Anas Haqqani, are likely to be freed in the next phase in exchange of the American and Australian professors of the American university in Kabul.

Taliban political representatives have wrapped up their four-day visit to Pakistan during which they met Khalilzad and discussed ways to return to the negotiation table, sources privy to the development said on Sunday.

“Taliban are satisfied with the outcome of the discussions,” a Taliban political representative said, adding that the Taliban leaders are now involved in internal consultations to respond to the US suggestions during the talks in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has said that the Taliban were scheduled to declare ceasefire with the US and NATO on September 13, the date set for signing of the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban.

Kabulov was speaking to the Indian media outlet the Strategic News International (SNI) weeks after President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled peace talks with the Taliban, citing a Taliban-claimed suicide attack that had killed an American soldier and 10 more people.

“They (Taliban) agreed that ceasefire will be announced immediately on the event of signing of the deal so it was supposed to start on 13th of September,” the Russian envoy said.

“They told us that they managed to completely agree on the text of their future bilateral agreement and it was ready to be signed precisely on 13 of September,” he said, adding that all of sudden the Americans stopped the process.

“But the Taliban came to us to brief us and to announce that they are still ready to resume talks and to finalize the agreement. If the Americans choose war, they (Taliban) are ready for war. This was natural and their message,” Kabulov said.

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