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World News

Afghan officials primed for talks with Taliban after deal on prisoners, sources say

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan negotiators and senior officials will fly to Doha for peace talks with the Taliban after the two sides reached a compromise over the release of prisoners, diplomatic and government sources said.

All but seven of the 5,000 prisoners whose release the Taliban had demanded as a precondition for negotiations have been freed, four government and diplomatic sources told Reuters.

National security advisor spokesman Javid Faisal confirmed that all but “a small number” of the remaining Taliban prisoners had been released, in return for the insurgent group freeing security force members in line with the government’s demands.

“Diplomatic efforts are ongoing,” he said in a tweet, referring to the final few prisoners who international partners objected to releasing. “We expect direct talks to start promptly.”

The Taliban did not respond to a request for comment.

It was not immediately clear when the talks would start.

A government source said they could begin as soon as Saturday, but a second source subsequently said that initial plans for the government delegation to fly to Doha on Thursday had been postponed.

“The coming days will hopefully bring the formal launch of intra-Afghan negotiations,” U.N. Afghanistan envoy Deborah Lyons told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday. “This is truly a historic moment ... But let’s be clear: This will be a long and challenging process.”

Deadlock over the Taliban prisoners had stalled the United States-brokered negotiations for months.

The release of the final batch of 400, who the government blamed for some of the worst violence committed in the country, has been debated for weeks.

They included the small number whose release was objected to by Western powers due to their involvement in attacks on foreign forces.

Five sources told Reuters the plan was for seven remaining prisoners to be transferred to Doha, where they would be kept under supervision.

The seven were members of the Afghan National Security Forces arrested on charges of attacking troops they were stationed with, an Afghan official said, marking them as sympathisers with or covert members of the Taliban.

Washington has been trying to broker peace talks to end 19 years of war since signing a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain, Charlotte Greenfield and Jibran Ahmad; additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, John Stonestreet and David Gregorio

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