US pushes for 'urgent' prisoner release in Afghanistan amid coronavirus pandemic

US pushes for 'urgent' prisoner release in Afghanistan amid coronavirus pandemic
The US envoy pressed the Afghan government and the Taliban to move ahead with a delayed prisoner swap amid the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
2 min read
19 March, 2020
The US said that talks may take place virtually due to the pandemic [Getty]

The United States on Wednesday pressed the Afghan government and Taliban to move forward with a delayed plan to free prisoners, saying the COVID-19 pandemic created urgency, AFP reported.

Last month, the US signed a deal with the Taliban that set in motion the withdrawal of forces and called for the release of captives ahead of talks between the Islamist insurgents and the Kabul government.

But the internationally recognised government, which was already reluctant, has put off the release, saying Kabul needed time to review the identities of prisoners.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy who brokered the US-Taliban deal, said the United States "would like to see prisoner releases begin as soon as possible in line with the US-Taliban agreement".

Khalilzad added that both sides would likely have to resort to "virtual engagement" due to the pandemic. 

He had previously called for the insurgents and government representatives to meet in Qatar, the site of a year of US-Taliban negotiations, to agree on the logistics of the prisoner swap, according to AFP.

Khalilzad said that the Taliban, who have not renounced violence against the government, have agreed that freed prisoners do not return to battle.

"The Taliban commit that released prisoners will abide by the commitments made in the peace agreement and not return to the battlefield," Khalilzad tweeted. "A violation will undermine the peace process."

The Taliban have demanded the release of 5,000 prisoners before meeting with the government for talks, which Norway had offered to hold this month.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had agreed to release 1,500 captives, with the remaining 3,500 to be freed as negotiations begin.

Read more: US-Taliban deal overshadowed by Afghan political chaos

The Taliban rejected the offer and the government's release of prisoners was not initiated, as decreed on Saturday.

Under the agreement, the Taliban would free 1,000 captives.

The United States is hoping to pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan and end its longest-ever war, which was declared after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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