Afghan government releases 100 Taliban prisoners

Washington signed a key deal with the Taliban in February that promised the withdrawal of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan by next summer, provided the militants start talks with Kabul and adhere to other guarantees, including a prisoner exchange

The Afghan government released 100 low-risk Taliban prisoners Wednesday, officials said, a day after the insurgents announced they were walking out of talks with Kabul.

The two foes have been negotiating in the Afghan capital since last week to try to finalise a prisoner swap that was originally supposed to have happened by March 10 and pave the way for "intra-Afghan" peace talks.

But the exchange has been beset with problems, with Kabul claiming the Taliban want 15 of their "top commanders" to be released, while the insurgents have accused Afghan authorities of needlessly wasting time.

In a statement, Afghanistan's Office of the National Security Council (NSC) said the 100 prisoners freed on Wednesday were "thoroughly vetted" and had all taken an oath never to return to the battlefield.

The government "has received the same assurance from the (Taliban's) leadership in Doha," the statement read.

An NSC spokesman earlier said the 15 commanders were not among those being released, and that additional prisoners would be freed "depending on what the Taliban do". The insurgents did not comment.

Officials said the freed prisoners were chosen based on their health, age and length of remaining sentence "as part of our efforts for peace and containment of COVID-19."

Afghan officials have said they want to release up to 10,000 non-Taliban prisoners to slow the spread of coronavirus in jails.

The United States signed a deal with the Taliban in late February that required the Afghan government -- which was not a signatory to the accord -- to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and for the insurgents to release 1,000 pro-government captives in return.

In the accord, Washington promised the withdrawal of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan by July next year, provided the Taliban start talks with Kabul and adhere to other guarantees.

On Tuesday, the Taliban's political spokesman Suhail Shaheen accused the administration of President Ashraf Ghani of "intentionally postponing the release and breaching the deal".

He said the Taliban would pull their negotiators out of "fruitless" discussions with the Afghan government over the prisoner swap.

The two foes have been negotiating since last week to try to finalise a prisoner swap and pave the way for 'intra-Afghan' peace talks