Afghan president Ghani to issue decree on Taliban prisoner release, sources say

KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will issue a decree for at least 1,000 Taliban prisoners to be released this week, five official sources said on Monday, paving the way for opening direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during his inauguration as president, in Kabul, Afghanistan March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Ghani was sworn in for a second term on Monday, in a ceremony attended by U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and other international representatives including NATO forces commander Scott Miller.

His political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who contested the election results, held a parallel inauguration ceremony of his own, escalating the feud between the arch rivals and casting a shadow over the commencement of intra-Afghan peace efforts.

Talks that both camps carried out with Khalilzad over the day and weekend failed to forge a deal that would prevent rival swearing-in events, official sources said.

A prisoner release is part of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban that allows U.S. forces and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan to end more than 18 years of war.

The Taliban demand for the release of 5,000 prisoners as a confidence-building measure has been the most contentious part of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February. Ghani, earlier in March, rejected the demand, saying the Afghan government made no such commitment.

Ghani said in a speech after being sworn in that he would issue an order on Tuesday about the 5,000 Taliban prisoners the militant group has demanded be released in order to begin talks with the Afghan government.

Ghani had previously rejected the demand as a condition for talks, but five official sources said Ghani agreed to release the prisoners in order to secure U.S. and other international endorsement for his inauguration as president.

Three of the sources said Ghani would announce on Tuesday he was releasing around 1,000 prisoners, with the elderly and those nearing the end of their sentences prioritized.

A spokesman for Ghani’s office declined to comment. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Waheed Omer, the general director of the office of public affairs for Afghanistan’s government, declined to comment “for the moment”, adding “there will be a decree on this” soon.

“This is the ‘price’ that Ghani had to pay in return for Khalilzad attending his inauguration,” a former senior Afghan official told Reuters.

A senior Afghan security official said Ghani will release Taliban prisoners who are above the age of 52 to prove that he is willing to start talks with the Taliban.

“Young Taliban prisoners will not be released at this stage - the (release) numbers may vary between 1,000 to 1,800,” said a senior Afghan security official.

On Monday, Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said U.S. forces had begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.

“U.S. Forces for Afghanistan maintains all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives - including conducting counter-terrorism operations... and providing support to the Afghan National Defense and security forces,” he said in a statement.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul, Jonathan Landay, Idrees Ali in Washington and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Editing by Euan Rocha, Leslie Adler and Howard Goller