Afghan government frees 900 Taliban prisoners, urges extension of truce

The Afghan government has released 900 Taliban militants from prison on the third and final day of a nationwide ceasefire, urging the militant group to extend the truce.

“For better management of the prisoner issue, it is important to extend the ceasefire,” Afghan National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal told a news conference on Tuesday, as the prisoners were being released.

The three-day ceasefire was offered by the Taliban militant group for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. In response, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani initiated a process to release up to 2,000 imprisoned Taliban militants as a goodwill gesture.

In a statement on Twitter, Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s office in Qatar, welcomed the Tuesday release of 900 prisoners as “good progress,” saying the militant group would in turn free a “remarkable number” of government prisoners soon.

He did not say whether the group would extend the ceasefire, which was due to end at midnight the same day.

Earlier this month, the Taliban had rejected a call by the Afghan government for a ceasefire for the duration of Ramadan, continuing to conduct attacks. And Ghani ordered the country’s military to switch to offensive mode from a defensive one against the group.

The historic pause in fighting — only the second in nearly 19 years of war — has mostly held across Afghanistan, providing a rare respite from the conflict’s grinding violence.

The exchange of prisoners kicked off under a deal between the Taliban and the United States, which was signed in the Qatari capital, Doha, on February 29.

Under the deal, the Taliban agreed to halt their attacks on international forces in return for the US military’s phased withdrawal from Afghanistan and the prisoner exchange with the government in Kabul.

The Afghan government, which was not a signatory to the accord, was required to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The militants, for their part, were obliged to free 1,000 government captives.

Kabul, which has previously released some 1,000 Taliban prisoners, had said it would release 1,500 militants only before the group offered the ceasefire.

The Taliban have freed around 300 Afghan security force personnel.

‘We can always go back if we want to’

Separately on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump renewed his desire for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan but added that he had not set a target date.

“We’re there 19 years and, yeah, I think that’s enough… We can always go back if we want to,” Trump told reporters during a White House briefing.

When asked if the Thanksgiving holiday was a target, Trump said, “No. I have no target. But as soon as [is] reasonable. Over a period of time but as soon as [is] reasonable.”

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 shortly after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. While the invasion ended the Taliban’s rule in the country, it failed to eliminate the militant group.

American forces have since remained bogged down in Afghanistan through the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Amid the continued occupation, the Daesh terrorist group has also emerged in the Asian country more recently.


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