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Western professors freed in prisoner swap with Taliban

November 19, 2019

Afghanistan has freed three Taliban figures in exchange for the release of two Western hostages. Officials hope the exchange will help rekindle peace talks with the militant group.

Taliban fighters in the Ghazi Province of Afghanistan
Image: Reuters

The Taliban released an American and an Australian hostage on Tuesday after the Afghan government freed three imprisoned Taliban officers hours before.

Taliban and police officials reported Tuesday that the group had released hostages American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Week to US forces in southern Afghanistan. The hostages, both university professors, were kidnapped in 2016 outside American University in Kabul where they had taught.

"This morning at around 10 a.m. two American University professors were released in Nawbahar district of Zabul province. They were flown out of Zabul by American helicopters," a local police official said.

Read more: Can China make peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban?

Afghanistan released the three militants on Monday night, a Taliban official confirmed. They arrived in Qatar on Tuesday morning. Qatar is home to the Taliban's Afghan leadership.

Among the Taliban officers released is the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the feared Haqqani network, known for its large-scale attacks on Afghan civilians.

Undoing 18 years of war

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the conditional release of the Taliban prisoners last week. In a press conference, he said it had been a difficult decision that he made for the benefit of the country.

Kabul hopes the exchange will help rekindle peace talks with the militant group. Afghanistan has been plagued by an 18-year war between the Taliban and the state that triggered a multinational intervention led by US forces. Thus far the Taliban has refused to negotiate with the government, whom it considers to be an illegitimate "puppet" regime.

The US, who has had forces in Afghanistan since 2001, came close to reaching an agreement with the terrorist organization in September. However, negotiations fell apart following outburst of violence that left a US soldier dead.

The agreement met in the Tuesday exchange calls for negotiations that would end the war and jointly create a plan for the future of postwar Afghanistan. 

Hostage situation

Before their release, the whereabouts of the two professors had not been known.

Two videos featuring the captives had surfaced after their 2016 abduction. While they appeared pale and sickly in the first video, released in January 2017, a later video showed them in good health. In the video, they said their captors were treating them well and appealed to their governments to help negotiate their release. It is unclear if they were being forced to speak.

US forces then ran a mission to rescue the pair, but they were not found at the suspected location.

The Taliban appears to have waited for confirmation that their members had been released before freeing the professors.

kp/ng (AP, Reuters)

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