March 11, 2020 / 7:39 AM / 3 months ago

Afghan government to free 1,500 prisoners; Taliban demands 5,000

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Afghan government said on Wednesday it would free 1,500 Taliban prisoners, while delaying the release of another 3,500 that the militants say must be set free for talks to begin under a peace deal reached with the United States.

FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani arrives to his inauguration as president, in Kabul, Afghanistan March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

The Taliban promised to open talks with the Afghan government as part of the accord reached with the United States last month to end 18 years of U.S. involvement in war in Afghanistan.

The militants say the agreement requires the government to release 5,000 prisoners before talks begin. The government says the talks must begin and violence subside before it will free them all.

Sources have told Reuters the dispute arises in part because of different wording about the prisoner release in separate agreements the United States reached with the Taliban and the Afghan government.

President Ashraf Ghani has issued a decree ordering the release of an initial 1,500 prisoners, with the other 3,500 to be set free as conditions are met, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.

“The Taliban want all 5,000 prisoners released at once, which is impossible,” Sediqqi told journalists at a news conference. The first prisoners would be freed on March 14, he said.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban based in Doha, told Reuters the group had never agreed that there would be conditions attached to the release of the 5,000 prisoners.

“If someone claims this, it will be against the peace accord that we signed on February 29,” Shaheen said. “It is properly explained in the peace accord that first 5,000 prisoners would be freed and then the Afghan dialogue would be initiated.”

Despite the accord between the United States and the Taliban, fighting has continued in various parts of the country.

“The Taliban will be responsible, not the Afghan government, if this process fails,” Sediqqi said.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy who was the key negotiator in talks with the Taliban, has urged both sides to sit down for talks.

Taliban leaders told Reuters that their leadership council has also rejected an Afghan government demand that they give written guarantees that the released prisoners will not take part in fighting the Afghan government in the future.

Meanwhile, the formation of a negotiating team that is to participate in the talks with the Taliban as part of the intra-Afghan dialogue has been delayed due to continuing political consultations, Sediqqi said.

The composition of the team has been a bone of contention between the Afghan president and his main rival Abduallah Abdullah, who has refused to recognise Ghani’s reelection in last year’s presidential polls.

Abdullah, the runner-up who disputed the outcome in each of Afghanistan’s last three presidential elections, served as chief executive of a unity government since 2014. He held a ceremony this week to declare himself president on the same day Ghani was sworn in for a second term elsewhere in the capital.

“President Ghani has told us he is consulting with Dr. Abdullah and other Afghan leaders and will announce an inclusive team in the coming few days,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Ghani’s spokesman announced that a decree had been issued to dissolve Abdullah’s chief executive post. Abdullah issued his own statement saying Ghani was no longer president and his decrees were not valid.

Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff

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