KABUL – The Afghanistan government said on Tuesday it had decided to conditionally release three Taliban prisoners in a swap deal with the insurgent group to free two foreign professors abducted over three years ago.
In a televised address to the nation, President Ashraf Ghani said the release of the three Taliban members in exchange for a US and an Australian professor was “a bitter price” the Afghans were paying for peace in the country.
“We decided to conditionally release three Taliban prisoners, who were arrested from foreign countries with the close cooperation of our international partners, and were under detention of the Afghan government in Bagram prison,” Ghani said.
The president said the two professors, Kevin King, 60, an American, and Timothy Weeks, 48, an Australian, to be freed from the Taliban captivity “were here to teach our children.”
“Our joint efforts in tracking these friends did not work, and intelligence (inputs) were showing their health was deteriorating in captivity of the terrorists,” Ghani said.
The professors, who taught at the American University in Kabul, were abducted on Aug 7, 2016, after they were forcibly removed from their vehicle while traveling in the Afghan capital, according to an FBI notice.
Ghani said the three militant commanders to be freed from the Aghan prison included Anas Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network that has claimed several deadly attacks in Afghanistan in recent years.
The other two militant leaders are Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid.
Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid said the exchange of prisoners had taken place as yet.
“We will issue an official statement after the prisoners are handed over to us. We will then provide information about (the) released prisoners,” Mujahid said.
The president said the decision to set them free was made “in close consultations with our international partners, particularly the United Nations, to pave the ground for the direct negotiations with the Taliban, for the sake of peace and stability, which is the demand of every citizen of this land.”
He said the release of the two foreign professors was “our main demand in indirect talks with the Taliban” in the past.
The American University of Afghanistan in statement said they were “encouraged to hear (the) reports of the possible release of our two colleagues, King and Weeks.”
“While (the university) is not part of these discussions, we continue to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years,” it said.
Ghani said the “conditional release” of the three militants will not strengthen the ranks of the Taliban as there are “joint precautions” taken by Afghanistan and the US, indicating that the freed militant commanders won’t return to the battlefield or reinforce the ranks of the insurgent group.
The president said 11,000 Taliban members, “involved in various crimes,” were currently imprisoned in Afghan jails.
“If lasting, dignified and nationwide peace and stability comes to the country… we will be able to decide and revise the fate of every one of these prisoners based on a national and organized program,” Ghani said, expressing the hope that “Taliban choose the path of negotiations.”