KABUL: The Afghan government has released Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Haqqani network chief, and two more Taliban prisoners in exchange for two professors of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani has announced.
The prisoners were released on November 12 from Bagram prison, Ghani said in a live news conference, though he didn’t say when they would be set free.
However, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and BBC Pashto reported on the authority of sources that the Taliban prisoners, Anas Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, Hafiz Rashid Omari and Haji Milli Khan, have been released. All three were captured in 2014.
The freed militants “will be sent to Qatar under US supervision”, one unnamed Afghan official told RFE/RL.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is second-in-command in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy and leads the Haqqani network which was once dubbed the deadliest of all Taliban factions in Afghanistan.
Ahead of the release, the Afghan president said the prisoners would only be freed if the Taliban in turn released US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks who were abducted in August 2016 from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
The Taliban refused to confirm or deny the release, while Afghan presidential spokesperson Siddiq Siddiqui refused to comment when approached by BBC Pashto Service.
The prisoner exchange comes at a time when efforts were being made to revamp peace talks between the United States and the Taliban. The swap could pave the way for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“In order to pave the way for a face-to-face negotiation with the Taliban, the government has decided to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for two university professors,” Ghani said in the televised speech.
A Taliban spokesperson earlier this year said that the movement was determined to obtain Anas Haqqani’s release and named him as a member of a negotiating team that would hold talks with US officials.
Ghani said authorities had been unable to discover where the Taliban were holding the two captives. “Information suggests that their health while being held by the terrorists has deteriorated,” he added.
Prime Minister Imran Khan during a three-day visit to Washington in July said that he would do his best to help release the American university professors.
A delegation from Pakistan, including the ISI chief, was in Kabul to meet Afghan authorities on Monday. A senior official in Islamabad claims the exchange of prisoners was discussed by the delegation.
According to Afghan officials, the next round of talks between the Taliban and Afghan representatives is slated for this month in Beijing.