Australia, France object to release of final Taliban prisoners: officials

KABUL (Reuters) - Some Western nations including France and Australia have urged Afghanistan not to free all of a final batch of prisoners demanded by Taliban militants, officials said, posing a further possible complication to long-awaited peace talks.

The Afghan government, under pressure from the United States as it withdraws its troops from a war which started in 2001, agreed last week to begin releasing the final 400 prisoners demanded by the Taliban as a pre-condition to start peace talks in Qatar.

It was not immediately clear whether the Western objections were delaying the talks, which are set to begin in Doha soon after the remaining 320 prisoners are freed. Eighty have already been released.

Two Western diplomats in Kabul said the full list of prisoners had not been shared with many nations until last week and that France and Australia were strongly opposed to a few prisoners on the list going free.

French and Australian officials confirmed in recent days they were opposed to certain prisoners being released, without specifying how many.

“France asks the Afghan government not to proceed with the release of several terrorists convicted of killing French citizens in Afghanistan,” the French Embassy in Kabul said on Twitter.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne told media last week the Australian government had been in touch with Washington and the Afghan government asking them not to free one of the prisoners, Hekmatullah, a former Afghan army sergeant who killed three Australian solders.

One solution proposed, the sources said, was “house arrest” under which the prisoners would be placed under supervision outside the prison system. Reuters reported last month the idea had been suggested by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad during an earlier deadlock.

Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar said on Sunday the government was working to achieve “consensus” among the international community.

“The world has protested... Our work will be to create consensus on it with the world,” he told journalists.

A peace ministry spokeswoman said on Monday that talks would not be delayed and a date would be announced in coming days.

Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain; additional reporting by Paulina Duran; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Macfie