Taliban will release two Western hostages they have held for three years in return for the Afghan government releasing three senior Taliban leaders, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced Tuesday morning.
He said his government made this decision, in consultation with its international partners, in particular the United States, in order to facilitate “talks with the Taliban and for reaching peace and stability, which is the demand of every Afghan.”
American Kevin King, 62, and Australian Timothy John Weeks, 50, were kidnapped in Kabul in August 2016, as they were leaving the American University of Afghanistan where they taught.
In January 2017, the Taliban released a video in which the two professors begged their families to put pressure on the United States government to negotiate with the Taliban and exchange prisoners for them.
“The Taliban have asked for soldiers to be released from Bagram prison air force base and from Pul e Karti, where they are held at the moment,” Weeks said in the 13-minute video in which both seemed extremely distraught and were crying.
Ghani said the decision had a humanitarian angle as well since his government had reports the health of the hostages was deteriorating.
The three Taliban leaders to be released include Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of current Haqqani network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani, along with Haji Mali Khan and Abdul Rashid.
Ghani described their release as “conditional” without identifying the conditions.
Sources close to the presidential palace said the prisoners will be released to the custody of the U.S. intelligence agency CIA and will be kept in a third country, possibly Qatar, until the Taliban release the Western hostages.
Qatar has, for years, facilitated an unofficial Taliban political office in the capital Doha in order to enable Western governments to negotiate with the group. Most direct talks between the U.S. and Taliban have so far taken place there.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told VOA he was aware of Ghani’s announcement but would “offer our reaction only after we know for sure the (Taliban) prisoners have reached us.”
The release of hostages is expected to help restart negotiations between Taliban and the U.S. that seemed close to a deal but fell apart at the last minute in early September.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who led those earlier negotiations is also credited with leading the negotiations to secure the release of these hostages.
Afghan government sources said Khalilzad’s trip to Islamabad early last month was also part of those efforts.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan told President Donald Trump in July during a Washington trip that his country was working to help get the hostages released.
Afghan and U.S. officials believe Pakistan still maintains a considerable influence on the Taliban insurgency because it provides safe havens to senior Taliban leadership—a charge Islamabad denies.
Haqqani was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and reportedly handed over to Kabul by the United States. His brother is the second-in-command in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy. The Haqqani network is considered to be the deadliest faction of the Taliban and is blamed for many attacks on the U.S. and NATO forces.
In February, Taliban added Haqqani’s name in a negotiating team talking to Khalilzad. However, the Afghan government resisted releasing a man its intelligence agencies considered a “mastermind” of the Taliban social media propaganda machine and an important fund raiser for the militant group.
A few years ago, the government came under pressure to hang Haqqani, who was sentenced to death in 2016, after deadly blasts hit Kabul. The Taliban at the time warned of “dire consequences” if the sentence was carried out.