The US special envoy who negotiated a deal with the Taliban says a first prisoner swap between the rebels and the government has been a step toward peace. He said the coronavirus threat made the swap even more urgent.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, on Monday welcomed the release by the Taliban of 20 prisoners taken from among Afghan security forces, calling it "an important step in the peace process and the reduction of violence" in Afghanistan.
He added that both the Afghan government and the Taliban should meet the targets laid out in the US-Taliban agreement he helped broker as soon as possible in view of the threat to prisoners posed by the current coronavirus outbreak.
The Taliban, who have been waging a yearslong insurgency against the government since being ousted from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, released the prisoners on Sunday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The move came after hundreds of Taliban held by the government were set free last week.
Pre-condition for dialogue
Under the deal signed by Khalilzad and the Islamist group on February 29, the Afghan government is to release altogether 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the insurgents are to free 1,000 captive Afghan security force members. The prisoners' release is a pre-condition to a lengthy and complicated intra-Afghan dialogue.
The deal paves the way for military forces from the US and other countries to leave the war-ravaged nation, as is demanded by the Taliban.
The prisoner exchange was scheduled to have taken place by March 10, but was delayed after both sides accused each other of making demands going beyond the agreement.
Kabul says it has now released 300 low-risk Taliban prisoners, who have pledged not to return to the fight and are being let go based on various factors including their health, age and length of remaining sentence.