KABUL – Afghanistan agreed on Sunday to release 400 Taliban detainees and raises hopes that peace talks between the government and the Taliban can finally begin, following a peace agreement signed by the insurgents with the United States earlier this year.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign the decree after a meeting of the Council of Elders, known as Loya Jirga, endorsed the Taliban’s demand to release the 400 detainees “to prevent obstruction, to start peace talks, to stop bloodshed and for human goodwill.”
Ghani had convened the assembly in the capital Kabul, where about 3,200 Afghan leaders and politicians gathered in the middle of a tough security to advise the government if the prisoners were to be released.
“You have given a way to our nation today,”
He added: “We have no other way but peace.”
Three Taliban leaders told NBC News that they would wait for the prisoners to be released before planning how to proceed. However, they said they would not declare a ceasefire immediately.
Taliban militants have insisted on the release of prisoners as a condition of starting peace talks with the Afghan government.
On Friday, Ghani told the assembly that the Taliban demanded the release of the remaining 400 detainees in order for the peace talks to begin, but that it was “over the authority of the President of Afghanistan” because they were convicted of serious crimes.
If the prisoners are not released, he said, the Taliban threatened to increase their violent activity.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted on Friday that the assembly was “a historic opportunity” to remove the last hurdle to lead peace talks.
“A positive outcome will mean a reduction in violence and Afghans will immediately come together at the negotiating table,” he added.
“We recognize that the release of these prisoners is unpopular,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Assembly in a statement released on Thursday. “But this difficult measure will lead to an important result that has long been sought by Afghans and friends of Afghanistan: a reduction in violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.”
The head of Loya Jirga, Abdullah Abdullah, told reporters on Saturday that he expected peace talks to resume within three days of the decision to release Taliban prisoners.
At the end of last month, the Ghanaian government assured that the long-awaited direct negotiations would begin in a week.
At the time, the Taliban did not officially confirm that they were in negotiations with the government. The military has persistently refused to negotiate directly with or recognize the government in Kabul, referring to Ghani as an American puppet.
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The embassy peace process in Afghanistan has so far seen months of limited, if any, progress.
In February, the United States and the Taliban agreed in a landmark agreement that US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban’s security guarantees.
However, the start of peace talks, originally scheduled to begin on March 10, has been delayed.
Much of the delay has been due to Kabul’s reluctance to release certain Taliban prisoners identified as being released as part of the deal. The Afghan government was not a party to the US-Taliban agreement.
At the time, the United States was committed to working with both sides to secure the release of up to 5,000 detainees held by the Afghan government and 1,000 detainees held by the Taliban.
Kabul crossed out the liberation but eventually liberated all but the last 400 prisoners.
The conflict in Afghanistan is the longest war in the United States and has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 American troops and injured many thousands more. Between 2009 and last year, the UN registered more than 100,000 civilian accidents with more than 35,000 killed and 65,000 injured.
Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul. Yuliya Talmazan from London. Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed.