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Taliban pulls out of prisoner swap

Taliban pulls out of prisoner swap

The US Taliban peace deal lurches from crisis to crisis as the Taliban announced pulling out of prisoner swap talks with the Afghan government over alleged delays. The release of Taliban insurgents in exchange for kidnapped Afghan troops was a key to the US Taliban peace deal struck in February this year. The bilateral deal signed in Qatar did not include Kabul.

"Unfortunately, their (prisoners') release has been delayed under one pretext or another till now. Therefore, our technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings with relevant sides," Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, tweeted.

The swap of 5,000 Taliban prisoners with 1,000 Afghan security personnel was the first practical step to implementing the deal. The talks were delayed as the Taliban did not agree to the negotiating team constituted by the Afghan government. However, a Taliban delegation did arrive in Kabul last week to talk with a reconstituted Afghan government team.

This was the first official delegation of the Taliban in the Afghan capital in 19 years since the group was ousted from power in 2001 by the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which the latter blamed on the Taliban.

The Taliban team held several meetings with Afghan officials to discuss technicalities for the swap. The talks broke down over which prisoners were to be released by the government.

"We are ready to begin the first phase to release 400 prisoners, but it is the Taliban who don't want (the process to move on)," said Matin Bek, a senior government official who heads the Independent Directorate of Local Governance agency. He made the remarks after President Ashraf Ghani on Monday chaired the National Security Council meeting to discuss the prisoners' release process.

Bek said the Taliban had been insisting on the release of 15 top militant commanders who have been involved in big attacks and whose "hands are stained with the blood of our nation". He added that the Afghan government "first wanted to release those prisoners who pose less threat to security".

"The discussion is clear and that is the release of 5,000 prisoners. We have shown our flexibility, we cannot release the murderers of the Afghan people from our prisons to reinforce the frontline of the (Taliban) war. They should offer guarantees, prisoners will be released gradually. So, it rebuilds the trust and decreases the level of violence," he said.

This has been one of the many setbacks to the peace process since February 29 when the US and Taliban signed a peace deal in Doha, Qatar. Under the deal, the US will begin to pull the troops from the war-torn country by Nov and complete the process by 2021. The Taliban was to cease fighting and hold talks with the Afghan government.

However, despite the agreement, the US had fired missiles on insurgents while the Taliban increased attacks on Afghan police and troops. Moreover, the US declared that it was cutting off $1 billion aid to Afghanistan this year as the Afghan government was delaying the peace process. Amidst all this, insurgents attacked Sikhs devotees at a gurudwara in Kabul killing about 27 people.

Washington wants Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban for a roadmap to pull out the nearly 14,000 American troops who have been in the troubled region for over 18 years..