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Afghan government to release 400 Taliban prisoners, says peace talks imminent

The Taliban insisted on the prisoners' release as a condition for entering peace talks with the Afghan government.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Abdullah Abdullah (R) at the Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, in Kabul on Friday.- / AFP - Getty Images

KABUL — Afghanistan agreed on Sunday to release 400 Taliban prisoners, raising hopes that peace talks between the government and the Taliban can finally begin, following a peace deal the insurgents signed with the U.S. 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, approved the Taliban's demand to release the 400 prisoners “in order to prevent the obstruction, to start the peace talks, stop bloodshed and for the goodwill of the people."

Ghani had convened the assembly in the capital, Kabul, where some 3,200 Afghan community leaders and politicians gathered amid tight security to advise the government on whether the prisoners should be freed.

“You have given a path to our nation today,” Ghani said, addressing the assembly in a speech broadcast live on national television.

He added: “We don’t have other way than peace.”

Three Taliban leaders told NBC News they would wait for the release of their prisoners before making any plans on how to proceed. However, they said they would not declare a ceasefire immediately.

Taliban militants have insisted on the prisoners' release as a condition for entering peace talks with the Afghan government.

On Friday, Ghani told the assembly that the Taliban were demanding the release of the remaining 400 prisoners for the peace talks to begin, but it was “above the authority of the president of Afghanistan” because they were convicted with serious crimes.

If the prisoners are not released, he said, the Taliban threatened to ramp up its violent activity.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted Friday the assembly was “a historic opportunity” to remove the last hurdle to direct peace talks.

“A positive outcome will mean a reduction in violence and Afghans immediately coming together at the negotiating table," he added.

“We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular,” Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said ahead of the assembly in a statement released Thursday. “But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.”

The head of the Loya Jirga, Abdullah Abdullah, told reporters on Saturday he expected the peace talks to resume within three days of the decision to release Taliban prisoners.

Late last month, Ghani’s government reassured that the long-awaited direct negotiations would start in a week.

At the time, the Taliban did not officially confirm that they were entering into negotiations with the government. The militants have persistently refused to negotiate directly with or recognize the government in Kabul, referring to Ghani as an American puppet.

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The embattled peace process in Afghanistan has so far seen months of limited, if any, progress.

In February, the U.S. and the Taliban agreed in a landmark deal that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

But the start of peace negotiations, originally slated to begin on March 10, has been delayed.

Much of the delays have been as a result of Kabul’s reluctance to free some Taliban prisoners identified for release as part of the agreement. The Afghan government was not party to the U.S.-Taliban deal.

At the time, the U.S. committed to work with both sides to secure the release of up to 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government and 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban.

Kabul balked at the release, but eventually freed all but the last 400 prisoners.

The conflict in Afghanistan is America’s longest war and has cost the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. troops and wounded many thousands of others. Between 2009 and last year, the United Nations has recorded more than 100,000 civilian casualties 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.