Afghan officials discuss prisoner swap with Taliban ahead of U.S. troop withdrawal agreement

KABUL/DOHA (Reuters) - Afghan officials met Taliban members in Qatar on Friday to discuss a prisoner swap plan ahead of the U.S. and Taliban deal that will set the timeline for the withdrawal of American troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years.

The meeting in Doha was part of crucial confidence-building mechanism between the warring sides, two senior government officials in Kabul said.

The Taliban wants the release of over 5,000 detainees before launching direct negotiations with the Afghan side for a permanent ceasefire, a stumbling block in efforts to end the war.

A senior Taliban leader in Doha said both sides were working on “different angles to overcome the difference on prisoner swap”.

The Afghan delegation has no authority to agree on a prisoner swap. It will consult and report back to the president, another official said

Shepherding the Afghan government and Taliban towards intra-Afghan negotiations has been one of the biggest headaches for U.S. negotiators, according to western diplomats.

A senior official in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said Ghani was reluctant to send a delegation to discuss the prisoner swap with the Taliban before the U.S.-Taliban deal is formalised as Afghanistan is not a signatory to that bilateral agreement.

“But he now realises that a meeting is crucial at this juncture. This golden opportunity cannot be lost,” said the official, requesting anonymity.

The seven-day “Reduction in Violence” (RIV) pact that took effect on Feb. 22 and is set to culminate in the signing of an agreement between top U.S. and Taliban negotiators on Saturday in Doha, the Taliban’s political headquarters.

The RIV period has passed off largely successfully, and the United States and Taliban look set to sign the agreement to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban not to allow militant groups such as al-Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan.

Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for the President Ashraf Ghani said RIV has been an important step towards an enduring ceasefire as the number of attacks have been low by the Taliban.

“Our monitoring groups will provide us with their assessment of the week. We hope that RIV continues after signing of U.S., Taliban agreement, leading to a ceasefire.”

The Taliban now hold sway over half the country, and are at their most powerful since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, if inked on Saturday, would begin a phased withdrawal of American and coalition forces and would also require the Taliban to initiate a formal dialogue with the Afghan government and other political and civil society groups on a permanent nationwide ceasefire and power-sharing in post-war Afghanistan.

Taliban commanders said once the deal is signed the group will release 1,000 Afghan prisoners. In exchange, the Taliban expects the Afghan government to release their 5,000 fighters.

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar and Hamid Shalizi in Istanbul; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Giles Elgood