PESHAWAR — The Afghan Taliban are celebrating the release of their five top commanders — who were swapped in exchange for American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after being held in Guantanamo Bay for 12 years — serving their guests with sweets and goats cooked in rice.
“This is a historic moment for us. Today our enemy (for the) first time officially recognized our status. I can’t explain how our people are happy and excited over this unbelievable achievement. Today we reached our destination,” a senior member of the Afghan Taliban told NBC News exclusively from a hideout in Afghanistan.
The Taliban claimed Qatar’s government played a decisive role in the deal between them and the United States that led to an exchange of high-profile prisoners on Saturday, most notably U.S. Army Sgt. Bergdahl.
The commander said he was not allowed by the Taliban shura, or council, to talk to the media about the exchange of prisoners, therefore, he should not be quoted by name.
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He said the release of the top five commanders was great news that spread like wildfire among their fighters.
“Our leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, after a long time, heard a very good news. He is so happy and anxiously waiting to see his senior commanders,” the Taliban commander said.
Omar on Sunday released a rare statement calling the prisoner exchange a "great victory" for the Taliban.
According to the commander who spoke to NBC News, the release of Mulla Fazal Akhund, Noorullah Noori, Abdul Haq Waseeq, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammad Nabi will boost the morale of their fighters.
“Once we confirmed the arrival of our five heroes back in Qatar, celebrations started everywhere in Afghanistan and the neighboring Pakistan. It’s nonstop. The guests were first served with sweets and green tea but now there are official celebrations on behalf of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (official name for the Afghan Taliban)," he said.
"Goats are being slaughtered and served with guests and in some places goats are being cooked in rice," the Taliban commander said.
The process to make the exchange happen was a lengthy one, according to the Taliban commander, but the governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan were specifically kept in the dark because of trust issues.
A 24-hour ceasefire was agreed upon between Taliban and U.S. forces when Bergdahl was brought to Afghanistan's Khost province to be handed over the Americans, Taliban sources told NBC News.
One Taliban source close to Bowe during his custody told NBC News that he initially didn't believe he was freed even when he saw U.S. officials and their helicopter.
— with Fazul Rahim in Kabul