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Kabul Begins Release of 400 Taliban    08/14 06:04

   

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan has released the first 80 of a final 
400 Taliban prisoners, paving the way for negotiations between the warring 
sides in Afghanistan's protracted conflict, the government said Friday.

   Javid Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Council's office, made the 
announcement. Taliban officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because 
they are not authorized to speak to the media, said 86 prisoners were freed. It 
wasn't immediately known when the remaining prisoners would be freed.

   Prisoner releases on both sides are part of an agreement signed in February 
between the U.S. and Taliban. It calls for the release of 5,000 Taliban held by 
the government and 1,000 government and military personnel held by the 
insurgent group as a good will gesture ahead of intra-Afghan negotiations.

   Talks are expected to be held in Qatar where the Taliban maintain a 
political office. Several Afghan leaders told The Associated Press talks could 
begin by Aug. 20.

   These negotiations are to lay out a framework for a post-war Afghanistan. 
Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spent a year and a half negotiating 
the peace deal aimed at allowing American troops to return home and end 
America's longest military engagement.

   U.S. troops have already begun leaving and by November less than 5,000 
troops are expected to still be in Afghanistan down from nearly 13,000 when the 
agreement was signed Feb. 29.

   American and NATO troop withdrawal is contingent on the Taliban keeping 
their commitment not to allow militant groups to use Afghanistan against the 
United States or its allies. The withdrawal is not tied to successful talks 
between the warring sides.

   Last weekend, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held a traditional council 
meeting known as loya jirga to get a consensus on the release of a final 400 
Taliban he said were accused of serious crimes, saying without explanation that 
he could not unilaterally decide to release them.

   Some of the 400 have been implicated in devastating bombings in the capital 
Kabul, During a televised talk Thursday with the U.S.-based Council on Foreign 
Relations, Ghani warned of dangers they could present to lasting peace in 
Afghanistan.

   But for some in Afghanistan the talks with the Taliban mirror earlier 
negotiations with other insurgents, including warlord and U.S.-designated 
terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who many say has a reputation for violence that 
exceeds the Taliban.

   In 2016, Ghani negotiated a peace deal with Hekmatyar, whose Hezb-e-Islami 
group took responsibility for several bombings in Kabul, including one at a 
grocery story in the capital that killed a young family. The deal included 
removing Hekmatyar from the U.N. terrorist list. His group was also responsible 
for a 2008 attack on French soldiers --- the largest international loss in a 
single battle in Afghanistan.

   Also on Friday, a small bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded near a mosque 
in the capital, just as worshipers were finishing their prayers, wounding a 
police officer. No one immediately took responsibility but the Islamic State 
group has in the past targeted mosques in Afghanistan.

   The IS affiliate in Afghanistan has been targeted by Afghan security force, 
U.S. troops and the Taliban. A Department of Defense official previously said 
the peace deal with the Taliban is also intended to recruit the insurgent group 
into a coordinated fight to rid the region of IS.

   Meanwhile, the Afghan Defense Ministry said it is investigating a video 
circulating on social media purporting to show Afghan army personnel mutilating 
Taliban corpses.

   The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, tweeted that the 
footage "is deeply shocking ... investigation needs to be swift and open. If 
crimes are proven the criminals must be identified and held responsible."

 
 
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