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November 20, 2019

Afghan Taliban free two foreign hostages

Top Story

November 20, 2019

PESHAWAR: After marathon negotiations, the Afghan Taliban on Tuesday freed two Western hostages, American national Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, after holding them in captivity for more than three years.

Taliban had kidnapped them from the Kabul-based American University in August 2016. In return, the US and Afghan authorities released three high-profile Taliban prisoners, flew them to Qatar, and handed them over to members of the Taliban political office there. The Taliban prisoners included Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Abdur Rasheed Omari.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and a spokesman for the Qatar-based political office, Suhail Shaheen confirmed the prisoners’ swap. Anas Haqqani is the son of veteran Afghan mujahideen leader late Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of Haqqani militant network and deputy chief of Afghan Taliban.

Anas Haqqani and Hafiz Rasheed Ahmad Omari were returning from Qatar on October 12, 2014 when they were captured by the US and Afghan intelligence officials from Bahrain airport. They were later brought to Afghanistan and the Afghan authorities claimed to have arrested them from Khost province.

Haji Mali Khan is maternal uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani. The US and Afghan security forces had captured him from Paktika in 2012. He was close to Sirajuddin Haqqani and reportedly used to recruit fighters for the Haqqani Network in southern Afghanistan. The two sides were supposed to exchange prisoners last week but it was delayed due to some serious differences.

Prime Minister Imran Khan in a message on Twitter welcomed release of the two Western hostages, Prof Kevin King and Prof Timothy Weeks in Afghanistan.

“We appreciate steps taken by all involved to make it possible. As part of the international community working to bring peace and end the suffering of the Afghan people, Pakistan has fully supported & facilitated this release,” said the prime minister.

He further stated: “As part of its policy of supporting initiatives for a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict, we hope this step gives a boost of confidence to all parties involved to re-engage in the peace process. Pakistan remains committed to facilitating this peace process.”

According to Taliban sources, their three prisoners were released Monday night in Kabul and then flown to Doha in a special aircraft. It seemed the previous prisoners exchange failed due to doubts and lack of trust of the two sides on each other.

According to Taliban leaders privy to the prisoners swap project, their three prisoners were taken to Doha on Monday night but US refused to hand them over to their representatives in Qatar. “There were powerful guarantors but even then doubts existed. The US wanted to hand over our prisoners to our representatives in Qatar but before that they wanted possession of their two men,” said one senior Taliban leader.

Pleading anonymity, he said as per the deal reached with US and Afghan authorities, they had announced an unannounced ceasefire in some provinces to ensure safe travel and handing over of the two foreign hostages.

“There was a bomb blast lately in Kabul which had nothing to do with Taliban but it delayed prisoners swap. We later resumed negotiations and finally struck a deal for successful prisoners’ exchange,” said the Taliban leader.

He said they handed over the two foreign nationals to US and Afghan authorities in Naubahar area of Afghanistan’s Zabul province on Tuesday. “And the moment we delivered them their prisoners, they gave cell phones to our three people in Doha and handed them over to our representatives there. They are now free members of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” said the Taliban leader.

According to Taliban sources, Prof King had some health issues when they kidnapped him three years ago.

They claimed they had provided him and other prisoners “the best possible” healthcare services during captivity. King was suffering from “serious” and “multiple” health issues, according to a Taliban leader in Zabul province.

On November 12, Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani announced a deal to release the two hostages in exchange for three Taliban members. Also, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the professors' release. “Tim’s family has asked for privacy. They have asked the Australian Government to convey their relief that their long ordeal is over, and their gratitude to all those who have contributed to Tim’s safe return,” he said on Twitter. The American University of Afghanistan welcomed the news soon after the announcement.

“The AUAF community shares the relief of the families of Kevin and Timothy, and we look forward to providing all the support we can to Kevin and Tim and their families,” the statement said.

The exchange raises hopes that negotiations between the US and the Taliban may restart after President Donald Trump pulled the plug on a potential deal to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan and end America's longest war. Negotiations broke down on September 7 this year and it remains unclear if and when they will start again. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement to confirm the prisoners’ swap. “These actions are a step forward in goodwill and confidence building measures that can aid the peace process,” the Taliban said in a statement Tuesday. Suhail Shaheen appreciated the role played by the Qatar government in the prisoners’ exchange.