(Update 1: adds Taliban reaction)
Kabul, Aug 14 (efe-epa).- The government of Afghanistan announced Friday that it has released 80 of the final 400 Taliban prisoners that remained to be freed as a part of a prisoner swap deal for the intra-Afghan peace talks to commence.
“The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan yesterday released 80 Taliban convicts out of the 400 that the Consultative Loya Jirga (grand assembly) sanctioned for release to speed up efforts for direct talks and a lasting, nationwide ceasefire,” the country’s Office of the National Security Council tweeted.
In another tweet in Persian, it added that the released prisoners had pledged not to pick up arms again.
“I was in prison for almost eight years. My crime was kidnapping and drug smuggling. I thank the Afghan Government for forgiving my sins,” said Baz Mohammad, who was released after eight years, according to a video released by the government.
The latest release of prisoners came after President Ashraf Ghani on Monday signed a decree allowing the the last 400 Taliban detainees to be set free, potentially removing the last obstacle in the way of peace negotiations which have been surrounded by doubt and skepticism due to the long-standing mistrust between Kabul and the rebels.
The government on Friday did not clarify when the process to release all the 400 Taliban detainees would be completed.
The Taliban confirmed to EFE that some of the remaining prisoners had been released, without divulging further details
“It is upon the opposite side (government) when they complete the release of our prisoners. But the sooner, the better,” said Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, where the intra-Afghan talks are set to take place.
“Whenever they (Kabul) complete the prisoner release process, we are ready to begin intra-Afghan talks within a week.”
According to a United States-Taliban peace agreement, signed in February in Doha, the Afghan government was to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the rebels freeing 1,000 of its captives by Mar. 10 as a precursor to intra-Afghan talks.
The Taliban completed their part of the agreement on July 30, while the government, which had by then released 4,600 of the 5,000 prisoners as per the pact, had resisted freeing the remaining 400 detainees due to their criminal record that included charges such as rape and murder.
Ghani, who said he did not have the authority to free these prisoners due to them being accused of serious crimes, summoned a Loya Jirga – a traditional grand assembly of tribal elders, community leaders, and politicians – to resolve the issue.
The Jirga had on Sunday approved the release to “remove the obstacles” in the path of the peace process, which could bring an end to nearly two decades of war in the country.
The US-Taliban agreement also included the complete withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months. So far, 8,600 of these soldiers have been pulled out of Afghanistan in the first 135 days after the agreement. EFE-EPA