By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The Taliban says it has released a first group of Afghan government prisoners it has been holding captive, as part of a delayed swap considered key to paving the way for peace talks between the two sides.
The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid as saying that 20 Afghan troops were set free in the southern province of Kandahar on April 12.
The Taliban sent photos of those allegedly released to TOLOnews, saying they were handed over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the broadcaster reported.
Afghan officials have not immediately commented.
Earlier in the day, the Afghan National Security Council (NSC) said the government had released 100 Taliban prisoners, bringing to 300 the total number of Taliban inmates freed since April 8.
The NSC posted several photos of the prisoners on Twitter and said that they had been freed on April 11.
The council said that the health condition, age, and length of the remaining sentences were considered in choosing which prisoners to release.
A pact signed by the United States and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, on February 29 calls for the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters as a confidence-building measure ahead of formal peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has vowed to release some 1,000 Afghan government troops and civilian workers it is holding.
But the Taliban last week recalled a three-member team it had sent to Kabul to try to finalize the swap originally set to happen by March 10.
The militants blamed the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for delaying the exchange “under one pretext or another,” while Kabul called on the Taliban not to “sabotage the process by making excuses.”
In return for the start of talks between Kabul and the Taliban and a series of security commitments from the militants, all U.S. troops and other foreign coalition forces are meant to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months.