Afghan political rivals divided over release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners

KABUL, March 5 (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s main political rival supports a Taliban demand for the release of thousands of their prisoners before they will take part in peace talks with the government, his spokesman said on Thursday.

A dispute over the prisoner release threatens a U.S-led effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, days after the militants and the United States signed an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The adoption by Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s main rival in the past two, disputed presidential elections, of a position on the prisoner dispute at odds with that of Ghani’s will increase suspicion between them when they should be focusing on a united front for the proposed talks with the Taliban.

The pact that the United States and the Taliban signed in Doha on Saturday calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces in return for a Taliban commitment to prevent militants from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and others.

The accord – to which Ghani’s government was not a party - also provides for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives, by March 10.

But Ghani has rejected that, saying the release of prisoners should be negotiated.

The Taliban are demanding their prisoners be freed before any peace talks begin and Abdullah agreed with that, his spokesman said.

“We believe that all the issues on the draft of the agreement are confirmed and agreed, by both sides, after long and careful discussions, so the things on the peace agreement should be implemented without any delay,” said the spokesman, Fraidoon Khwazoon.

“Trust-building is very important to take the peace talks forward and releasing the 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 ANDSF members is a must,” he added, referring to Afghan government forces.

A spokesman for Ghani did not immediately respond to a request for comment but a senior government official reiterated that it was not practical, and nor a prerequisite for the so-called intra-Afghan talks, that the prisoners be released.

“Over the years, we’ve released hundreds of insurgents as a gesture of good faith but it didn’t help with peace,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

“The government has to be sure the release guarantees peace negotiations with the Taliban,” the official said.

Ghani and Abdullah are old rivals who both held roles in the previous government under a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement. A former foreign minister, Abdullah held the specially created post of chief executive in the outgoing government.

Their dispute over the outcome of a Sept. 28 presidential election raises the prospect of chaos as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces after more than 18 years of war.

The Election Commission last month announced that Ghani won September’s election but Abdullah has also proclaimed himself winner and is planning a parallel inauguration on March 9.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has led the negotiations with the Taliban, had asked both sides to delay their inaugurations, Khwazoon said, but the senior government official said there was no plans to delay Ghani’s.

Khwazoon also said Abdullah’s team was speaking to other political groups about a delegation for the talks with the Taliban. (Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, additional reporting by Hamid Shahlizi Writing by Charlotte Greenfield Editing by Robert Birsel)