World

Afghanistan releases three Taliban prisoners in hopes of exchange for held American, Australian

File- In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016, file photo, a protesters hold posters with Persian that reads;"If Ghani and Abdullah do not betray the terrorist attacks' victims, then they should execute Anas Haqqani and the other terrorist leaders who have been arrested" during a demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan President Ghani said Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, his government has released three Taliban figures in effort to have the insurgents free an American and an Australian professor they abducted in 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Rahmat Gul/Associated Press/File
Protesters in 2016 in Kabul with a photo of Anas Haqqani, one of the militants who was released.

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday announced that his government has released three prominent Taliban figures in an effort to get the insurgents to free an American and an Australian professor they abducted in 2016 and have held captive for over three years.

At a press event broadcast live on state television, Ghani told the nation that the release of the three was a very hard decision he felt he had to make in the interest of the Afghan people.

The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Ghani, as President Donald Trump halted talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in September, after a particularly deadly spate of Taliban attacks, including a Kabul suicide bombing that killed a U.S. soldier.

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Also, the future of Ghani’s government is in doubt as the results from the Sept. 28 presidential elections have not been released yet. Preliminary results are expected on Nov. 14.

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The three members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network that Ghani said were released include Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid. Ghani added that they are being released ‘‘conditionally in exchange’’ for the two professors.

The three were under the custody of the Afghanistan government, Ghani said, and were held at the Bagram prison, at an air base that also houses U.S. troops just outside Kabul. The Afghan president did not elaborate or say when and where the three were released.

‘‘In a demonstration of respect for humanity by the government and nation of Afghanistan, we decided to conditionally release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested in close cooperation with our international partners from other countries,’’ Ghani said.

The Taliban have long demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, the deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network, often considered the strongest of the Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.

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Anas Haqqani was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and handed over to the Afghan government, which later sentenced him to death. It was not clear when his execution was supposed to take place.

The two captives held by the Taliban — an American identified as Kevin King and an Australian man identified as Timothy Weekes — were abducted in 2016 outside the American University in Kabul where they both work as teachers.

The following year, the Taliban released two videos showing the American and the Australian. A video in January 2017 showed them appearing pale and gaunt. In the later video, King and Weekes looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16 that year.

Both said they are being treated well by the Taliban but that they remain prisoners and appealed to their governments to help set them free. It was impossible to know whether they were forced to speak.

Subsequently, U.S. officials said that American forces had launched a rescue mission to free the two, but the captives were not found at the raided location.

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In Tuesday’s address, Ghani added that the Taliban kidnapping of the two American University teachers was not representative of Islamic and Afghan traditions.

‘‘We have decided to release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested outside of Afghanistan,’’ Ghani said, adding that it was meant ‘‘to facilitate direct peace negotiations.’’

In a statement, the American University of Afghanistan said it welcomed the development and was ‘‘encouraged to hear reports of the possible release of our two colleagues, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks.’’

The statement added that while the university was not part of any negotiations or discussions, it continues ‘‘to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years.’’

Ghani said the release of the two teachers was ‘‘part of our main demands during the indirect negotiations with Taliban.’’

‘‘We can assure the families of both teachers that we welcome and honor those who come to our country to pursue education,’’ Ghani said.