Afghan govt frees Taliban prisoners as truce holds for second day

Afghan men leave a mosque after prayers during Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim festival marking the end the holy fasting month of Ramadan, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Laghman province, Afghanistan May 24, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 May 2020

Afghan govt frees Taliban prisoners as truce holds for second day

  • Ghani said his administration was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban

KABUL: Afghan authorities released 100 Taliban prisoners Monday as part of the government's response to a surprise, three-day ceasefire the insurgents called to mark the Eid al-Fitr festival.
The pause in fighting, only the second of its kind in Afghanistan's nearly 19-year-old war, appeared to be holding on day two after the government welcomed the truce by announcing plans to release up to 2,000 Taliban inmates.
President Ashraf Ghani said his administration was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban, seen as key to ending the war in the impoverished country.
"The government of Afghanistan has today released 100 Taliban prisoners from Bagram prison," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal told AFP.
He said the prisoner release was to "help the peace process" and will continue until 2,000 prisoners are freed.
Faisal said there had been no reports of any ceasefire violations so far, adding that authorities plan to release insurgent prisoners in batches of 100 daily.
"We hope this will eventually lead to a lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan so much desire and deserve," he said.
In the northern city of Kunduz, which the Taliban attacked just days ago, calm prevailed as residents celebrated Eid at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
"Just two days ago panic had set in the city," said Atiqullah, a shopkeeper from Kunduz.
"Today, you go out and feel as if there is no more fighting. People are actually celebrating Eid."
The current ceasefire is the first initiated by the Taliban. The only other comparable pause came over Eid in 2018, and was first offered by Ghani.
The normally restive southern province of Uruzgan was also calm, police said.
"There was non-stop fighting every single day, but since the ceasefire was announced not a single shot has been fired," said Haji Lal Agha, the provincial police chief.
"It is especially good for the residents of Trinkot who would hear the sound of gunfire every day," he added, referring to the provincial capital.
There were no reports of fighting from Kandahar, once a bastion for the Taliban, and the southeast province of Khost was also peaceful, police said.
"We are carefully monitoring the ceasefire and the situation, and there has not been any major activity by the enemy since the ceasefire was announced," interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said.
He said they were, however, investigating a mortar attack on Sunday in Laghman province that killed five civilians.
Violence had escalated since the Taliban signed a deal with Washington in February to withdraw all US forces from the country by next year.
The agreement also set the stage for intra-Afghan peace talks and stipulated that the government would first release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel.
Before Sunday's announcement to free up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a "goodwill gesture", Kabul had already released about 1,000 Taliban inmates while the insurgents had freed about 300 Afghan security force captives.
The Taliban insist Kabul must release all 5,000 members as agreed in the deal with the US.
"This process should be completed in order to remove hurdles in the way of commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has welcomed the ceasefire, but insists the freed Taliban prisoners should not return to the battlefield.

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Daudzai

Updated 18 min 21 sec ago

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Daudzai

  • Pakistan played positive role in US-Taliban peace talks, says diplomat

PESHAWAR: Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan has had put “mending political relations” between the two estranged nations as one of his top priorities.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, on Tuesday said that his primary focus would be to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan and maintain strong ties with Pakistan, especially after Islamabad’s key role in the Afghan peace process earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, the diplomat told Arab News: “Two areas have been identified to focus on with renewed vigor, such as lasting peace in Afghanistan and cementing Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in economic, social, political and other areas.”

In order to achieve these aims, he said, efforts would be intensified “to mend political relations” between the neighboring countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600-kilometer porous border and have been at odds for years. Bonds between them have been particularly strained due to a deep mistrust and allegations of cross-border infiltration by militants.

Kabul has blamed Islamabad for harboring Taliban leaders after they were ousted from power in 2001. But Pakistan has denied the allegations and, instead, accused Kabul of providing refuge to anti-Pakistan militants – a claim rejected by Afghanistan.

Daudzai said his immediate priority would be to focus on “political reconciliation” between the two countries, especially in the backdrop of a historic peace agreement signed in February this year when Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating a troop withdrawal deal between the US and the Taliban to end the decades-old Afghan conflict. “Afghanistan needs political reconciliation which the Afghan government has already been working on to achieve bottom-up harmony,” he added.

Daudzai’s appointment Monday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took place days after Islamabad chose Mohammed Sadiq as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan.

Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with all of its neighbors, Daudzai said Pakistan’s role was of paramount importance to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks. I will explore all options for a level-playing field for the success of all these initiatives,” he said, referring in part to crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which were delayed due to a stalemate in a prisoner exchange program – a key condition of the Feb. 29 peace deal.

Under the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and around 1,000 government prisoners were to be freed by March 10. So far, Afghanistan has released 3,000 prisoners, while the Taliban have freed 500. Daudzai said that while dates had yet to be finalized, the intra-Afghan dialogue could begin “within weeks.”

He added: “A date for intra-Afghan talks hasn’t been identified yet because there is a stalemate on prisoners’ release. But I am sure they (the talks) will be kicked off within weeks.”

Experts say Daudzai’s appointment could give “fresh momentum” to the stalled process and revitalize ties between the two estranged neighbors.

“Mohammed Sadiq’s appointment...could lead Kabul-Islamabad to a close liaison and better coordination,” Irfanullah Khan, an MPhil scholar and expert on Afghan affairs, told Arab News.

Daudzai said that he would be visiting Islamabad to kickstart the process as soon as the coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions were eased.

Prior to being appointed as the special envoy, he had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from April 2011 to August 2013.