US committed to facilitating prisoner exchange: Khalilzad

Zalmay Khalilzad. (Photo: Twitter/@US4AfghanPeace)

Kabul, March 5 (IANS) Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, on Thursday said that Washington was still committed to facilitating the prisoner exchange that was agreed on in the landmark peace deal signed with the Taliban.

“US is committed to facilitating prisoner exchange, agreed in both US-Taliban Agreement and US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration. We will support each side to release significant numbers,” TOLO News reported citing the envoy as saying in a series of tweets.

“I met (Taliban leader) Mullah Baradar and his team last night for a candid discussion about next steps, followed by a constructive phone call with President Donald Trump. We all agreed the purpose of the US-Taliban agreement is to pave the path to a comprehensive peace in Afghanistan.”

Khalilzad, however, said that all parties involved in the peace process should try to work towards the intra-Afghan talks.

“We must act on all fronts to clear the road of obstacles that slow our progress toward intra-Afghan negotiations. I once again call on all Afghans to rise to the occasion, put country first and not to lose this historic opportunity.”

Khalilzad tweets came a day after the Kabul government said on Wednesday that there would be no Taliban prisoners released prior to the start of the intra-Afghan talks, saying the issue of prisoners will be discussed during the talks, TOLO News reported.

According to government figures, there are 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban prisoners in the country’s jails, including some foreigners who were arrested because of their involvement with the militant group.

“The Afghan government will raise the prison release issue in the (intra-Afghan) peace talks, as part of a proposed package including the Taliban’s relations with Pakistan, the Taliban’s involvement in drug smuggling, and the terms of a ceasefire,” said Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the Office of the National Security Advisor.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, on Wednesday said that the Taliban’s continued demand for the release of their prisoners could push the peace process into jeopardy.

The US-Taliban peace agreement signed on February says that the US will “start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides”.

At least 5,000 Taliban prisoners from the government side and 1,000 from the Taliban’s side “will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations”, it added.

On Monday, following Ghani’s statements about the prisoner release, the Taliban issued an order to their fighters to resume attacks on government forces, but to avoid attacking US troops.

The same day, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Muhjahid tweeted an image of the US-Taliban agreement with the text of the prisoner release outlined.

Since Monday, the Taliban have conducted scores of attacks across the country and dozens of Afghan security force members have been killed and wounded.

On Wednesday US forces conducted an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand province, for the first time in 11 days since the two sides had agreed to a reduction in violence (RIV) plan that started on February 22 and was aimed at creating conditions for peace and a permanent ceasefire.

The attack took place one day after Gen. Scott Miller, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned the Taliban to keep their commitments.

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