Afghan gov’t to free 900 prisoners; Taliban may extend truce

A Taliban prisoner drinks water from a canister as he sits on a vehicle during his release from the Bagram prison, next to the US military base in Bagram, some 50 km north of Kabul. (AFP)
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Updated 26 May 2020

Afghan gov’t to free 900 prisoners; Taliban may extend truce

  • The announcement came as a three-day cease-fire with the insurgents draws to an end

KABUL: The Afghan government announced it would free 900 prisoners on Tuesday, its single largest prisoner release since the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal earlier this year that spells out an exchange of detainees between the warring sides.
The announcement came as a three-day cease-fire with the insurgents draws to an end. The Taliban had called for the truce during the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
There are expectations that the prisoner release could lead to new reductions in violence, and Taliban officials say they are considering an extension of the cease-fire.
A senior Taliban figure confirmed this to The Associated Press.
“If these developments, like the announcement of prisoner release continues, it is possible to move forward with decisions like extending the brief cease-fire and to move in a positive direction with some minor issues,” the Taliban official said.
The prisoners were being released from Bagram prison, where the US still maintains a major military base, north of Kabul, as well as from the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the eastern edge of the Afghan capital.
By late afternoon, the AP witnessed scores of men pouring out of the Bagram compound — presumably the released prisoners. It was not immediately possible to verify their numbers or whether they were all Taliban members.
The prisoner release is part of the US deal with the Taliban, signed on Feb. 29 to allow for the eventual withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, bringing to an end the country’s protracted war and America’s longest military involvement.
When the deal was signed, it was touted as Afghanistan’s best chance for peace after decades of war but political feuding in Kabul and delays in prisoner exchanges have slowed the deal’s progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations, considered the second and most critical phase of the accord.
Under the deal, Kabul is to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners while the insurgents are to free 1,000 captives they hold, mostly government officials and Afghan forces, before intra-Afghan negotiations can begin.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had welcomed the Taliban cease-fire announcement during the Muslim holiday.
Javid Faisal, a national security spokesman in Kabul, urged the Taliban to extend the cease-fire and said the government would release 900 prisoners on Tuesday.
That would bring to 2,000 the number of Taliban prisoners released so far under the US-Taliban deal. The Taliban say they have released 240 of captives they held.
However, the Taliban have yet to confirm whether those released so far by the government were among the 5,000 names the insurgents had given US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Feb. 29 deal.
A second Taliban official told the AP that those released so far were n fact on the Taliban list of demands, including the uncle of Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada. Key in deciding which names would appear on the list was Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, a senior figure who had recently recovered from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Turabi was the much feared vice and virtue minister during the Taliban rule, known for beating men who were found listening to music or not attending the mosque. He once slapped a Taliban commander who spoke with a woman journalist.
Both Taliban officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Many Afghans have expressed frustration at the slow and often stalled peace process; many have known only conflict in their homeland for the past several decades.
“If both sides stop this war and sit at the negotiating table ... maybe my youngest children will experience a good life, which we never experienced,” said Sayed Agha, a truck driver from eastern Logar province who was wounded in April, caught in the crossfire during a battle between the Taliban and Afghan soldiers.
“I have spent my whole life in war,” said Agha, 45.


Palestinians allowed to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque

Updated 23 October 2020

Palestinians allowed to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque

  • Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, who had been barred for four months in June, was able to attend the Friday prayers
  • Palestinians from inside Israel were among those reaching Jerusalem for the weekly Friday prayers

AMMAN: An estimated 15,000 Palestinian worshippers flocked to Al-Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers, one month after the Israeli authorities banned entry due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Al-Aqsa’s preacher and the head of the Higher Islamic Committee, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, who had been barred for four months in June, was able to attend the Friday prayers. He told Arab News that the situation was back to normal. “All gates were open today and the Israelis allowed worshipers access to the mosque,” he said. Sheikh Sabri had issued calls to Muslims who could attend Friday prayers.
Hijazi Risheq, the head of the Jerusalem merchants committee, told Arab News that for the first time in weeks Israeli soldiers allowed entry to Islam’s third holiest mosque.
He said: “No Israeli soldiers were seen at the entrance of Jerusalem’s old city, allowing free access to the walled city, but some Palestinian youth with West Bank ID were prevented access to the mosque.”
Palestinians from inside Israel were among those reaching Jerusalem for the weekly Friday prayers.
Risheq told Arab News that the past week had been difficult for the city’s business community.
“During last week we witnessed an unprecedented and nasty campaign by the Israeli occupation forces against the merchants and residents of the city of Jerusalem. Shopkeepers were fined exorbitant violations of 5,000 shekels ($1,500) and any clients at the shops were also fined 500 shekels.”
Rizeq said that there appeared to be miscommunication and contradictions in the orders and guidance by the Israeli forces — “all at the expense of the merchants and residents of the city.”
The prevention of entry to the old city was a combination of the Jewish holidays and the lockdown due to the coronavirus, Palestinians told Arab News.
The Jerusalem Waqf Council had issued a six-point guide to worshippers giving medical advice about social distancing and about bringing their own prayer rugs, and recommended that older Muslims stay away from Al-Aqsa for their own protection.
Miki Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, confirmed the prayers for Muslims. “The Temple Mout (Al-Aqsa) was open on Friday and the prayers took place in a regular and quiet manner,” he told Arab News.