PESHAWAR/KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban have sent vehicles to be ready to collect fighters expected to be released by the Afghan government in a prisoner exchange and said they will honor the deal by handing over 1,000 government troops.
The release, expected to be announced on Tuesday, is part of a deal signed by the United States and the Islamist militant group last month that would allow U.S. forces and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan to end more than 18 years of war.
The Taliban have demanded the release of the prisoners as a confidence-building measure to pave the way for the opening of direct talks between the government and the insurgents after talks with the both sides and the United States individually.
Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said on Twitter that the presidential palace would issue a decree with details of the process, and the release was contingent on security and peace developments.
“The Afghan government has reached a framework based on which the release of prisoners will be in exchange for a significant reduction in the level of violence,” he said.
A senior Taliban leader in Doha, the group’s political headquarters, said vehicles had been sent to an area near Bagram Prison, north of the capital Kabul, to fetch the freed fighters.
“After our conversation with Zalmay Khalilzad (the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan) on Monday, in which he conveyed to us the release of our 5,000 prisoners, we sent vehicles to pick them up,” he said.
A government source said any release was unlikely in the coming days and could be weeks away.
The issue has become one of the biggest sticking points in any progress toward peace, complicated further by differing wording of documents between the United States and the Taliban and the United States and the Afghan government.
“The Taliban needs this to show to their rank and file. For the foot soldiers on the ground, a reduction-in-violence agreement, a troop withdrawal agreement signed in Doha means nothing, fighters returning is something they can feel,” said an Asian diplomat in Kabul.
Khalilzad attended Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony in Kabul on Monday. The president had previously rejected the Taliban demand for its fighters to be released.
In Washington, a senior Pentagon official said there were suggestions that there may a prisoner release offer by Ghani.
“I do think we might have actual, successful good faith efforts, maybe even today, that would get the intra-Afghan conversation started,” Kathryn Wheelbarger, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, said during a Congressional hearing.
During the same hearing, the head of U.S. Central Command said that while recent Taliban attacks had not been against coalition forces, they were “not consistent with the movement toward a negotiated settlement.”
“Taliban attacks are higher than we believe are consistent with an idea to actually carry out this plan,” U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said.
It was unclear whether prisoners would be released from other prisons aside from Bagram, a detention facility located next to a U.S. military base.
It was also not known how many prisoners would be released initially, but three sources told Reuters on Monday that it could be between 1,000 and 1,800.
A senior government official, who declined to be named, said on Tuesday: “In principle we have agreed to release prisoners in order to show our commitment toward bringing peace in Afghanistan but in what conditions the government is going to release them and how many, will be in the decree later this afternoon.”
He said the release would not be on Tuesday or Wednesday but could be “within weeks or months”.
A Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in a Tweet that his group had handed a detailed list of all 5,000 prisoners to the United States and was waiting for all to be released.
“It will be acceptable only when they are handed over to us in a desert or in detention centers under the observation of our prison officials,’ he said.
The U.S. embassy declined to comment. A spokesman for NATO’s mission referred questions to the Afghan government.
Abdul Shukoor Qudoosi, governor of Bagram district, said his office had reports of an unusual arrival of multiple buses in the area, but they could not confirm what the buses were for or whether they were connected to the release.
The Taliban leader in Doha also confirmed the group had finalised arrangements for the release of 1,000 prisoners held by them, adding that they had shifted all prisoners to safe locations in Afghanistan.
“We are planning to release the 1,000 prisoners of the Afghan government to the Red Crescent and they could then shift them to their hometowns or pay them cash for traveling home,” he said.
Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Hamid Shalizi in Istanbul, Orooj Hakimi and Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul, Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Alison Williams, Timothy Heritage and Bernadette Baum