Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says negotiations between his government and the Taliban militant group are expected to begin “in a week’s time,” following the completion of a prisoner exchange between the two sides.
In an address at the presidential palace on Tuesday, Ghani said the crucial prisoner swap with the Taliban was almost complete.
“To demonstrate the government’s commitment to peace, the Islamic Republic [of Afghanistan] will soon complete the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” Ghani said on Tuesday, using the official name of Afghanistan. “With this action, we look forward to the start of direct negotiations with the Taliban in a week’s time.”
The prisoner swap has been an Afghan government obligation under a deal between the United States and the Taliban that was struck in February. Kabul was excluded from the talks, and the obligation was imposed on it.
The exchange has been regarded as a first step toward broader talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Its implementation had faced hurdles since the deal was signed, and Ghani’s announcement of both the imminent completion of the swap and the start of talks was unexpected.
The deal envisages a complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, and the Taliban pledged not to attack American and other foreign forces. They made no such pledge in relation to the Afghan government and people.
The Afghan president also called on the Taliban to agree to a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” during the talks. “The ball now is in the court of the Taliban and the international community,” Ghani said.
Later in the day, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement declared a three-day ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, starting Friday. But any attack by “the enemy” would be met with force, he said.
Sediq Sediqqi, the main spokesman for Afghanistan’s president, greeted the announcement with a note of caution.
“The Afghan government welcomes the announcement of a ceasefire by the Taliban in Eid days, but the Afghan people wanted a lasting ceasefire,” the spokesman said. “The Afghan government has taken all necessary steps to show its commitment for the peace process and calls on the Taliban to show commitment too. The Afghan people are tired of war and it must end.”
The militants declared a similar three-day ceasefire at the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in May. That truce prompted widespread relief across Afghanistan, but it was short-lived, with the militants resuming deadly attacks straight afterwards.
Official data shows that bombings and other assaults by the Taliban have surged 70 percent since the militant group signed the deal with the United States.
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