KABUL: The Afghan Taliban on Tuesday released two foreign hostages held since 2016 in a prisoner swap for three jailed Taliban militants. American Kevin King, 63, and Australian Timothy Weeks, 50, were released three years after being kidnapped outside the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul where they worked as professors.
The swap included Anas Haqqani, brother of Taliban deputy chief Siraj-ud-Din Haqqani. The militant was flown out of Kabul on Monday to Qatar, where the Taliban has its political office.
A Taliban source said that Nabi Omari, a Taliban negotiator in Qatar, confirmed the arrival of the three militants to close friends on Monday night.
“The guests have arrived. I saw them and sat with them. Congratulations to you and all Muslims,” Omari told Taliban leaders in an audio message.
The two other Taliban figures to be released are Mali Khan, who was captured by foreign forces in 2001, and Hafiz Rashid — Omari’s brother — who was arrested by US intelligence agents at Bahrain airport in 2014. Neither the Taliban representatives nor Afghan officials were available for comment.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, on Tuesday welcomed the release of the two hostages, saying the move might lead to renewed peace talks between the US and the insurgent group.
“Pakistan welcomes release of Profs Kevin King and Timothy Weeks in Afghanistan. We appreciate steps taken by all involved to make it possible,” Khan tweeted on Tuesday.
The international community is “working to bring peace and end the suffering of the Afghan people, Pakistan has fully supported and facilitated this release,” he said.
The high-profile prisoner swap could lead to a resumption of stalled peace talks between the Taliban and the US, experts say.
It follows US President Donald Trump calling off the talks in September after a Taliban bomber killed a US soldier and 10 other people in Kabul.
Zabi Pakteen, an analyst, said that Washington is keen to resume peace talks with the Taliban in order to pave way for a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of war — the longest in US history.
“The Taliban believe they are in a better position. Both sides are jockeying for influence and a show of strength,” he told Arab News.
Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced his intention to release the three insurgents, who are accused of a string of high-profile attacks on government and foreign targets. Both hostages have had critical health issues for months, according to Ghani and Taliban sources.
The prisoner exchange follows Ghani’s talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on Monday night.
Both sides agreed that a cease-fire and a reduction in violence “was a necessary precondition for kick-starting the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
NATO’s civil chief for Afghanistan, Nick Kay, hailed the release of the Taliban hostages, saying it was a step in the right direction.
“The decision to release conditionally three prisoners is a bold confidence-building step on the path to peace. Taliban should reciprocate and also reduce violence,” he said in a tweet.