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August 29, 2020

Afghan Taliban say ready for talks if prisoners freed

National

August 29, 2020

PESHAWAR: The Afghan Taliban said on Friday they were ready for intra- Afghan negotiations if the Kabul government fulfilled its commitment and freed their remaining prisoners.

The Taliban supremo Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada had recently constituted a 21-member negotiation team for talks with the Afghan government and nominated chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai as its head. The first round of the long-awaited intra-Afghan dialogue is expected in Doha, where the Taliban have a political council and top leadership. However, the Taliban said the dialogue would be initiated once the Afghan government fulfilled the commitment of freeing their 320 prisoners.

A section of media quoting senior Afghan government officials reported that the initial meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban is likely to take place in the first week of September. Taliban chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, however, didn't confirm this piece of information. He said they were ready for the intra-Afghan negotiations if the Afghan government freed their prisoners. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The News that they had not fixed any date for the intra-Afghan dialogue yet.

"We are ready for the intra-Afghan negotiations but didn't fix any date for the meeting yet. The other side (Afghan government) needs to fulfil its commitment and free all the prisoners as per Doha accord," he said. He said they can't say anything about the date or time of the meeting as they do not expect the other side would release the prisoners so quickly. According to the Taliban sources, their top leadership was serious about the intra -Afghan talks and Taliban supreme leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada has himself chosen members of the negotiation team for talks with the Afghan government.

When reached, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai confirmed the constitution of the 21-member negotiation team headed by him. Stanakzai was the Taliban chief negotiator in peace talks with the United States. He was the first Taliban leader who led the Taliban negotiation team and held first direct talks with the US in Doha. "It's true and our supreme leader himself constituted this 21-member team and chose its members. This is the first time that members of the negotiation team would directly report to the supreme leader," said Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai. He said the negotiation team was powerful and had been given full authority by the supreme leader to resolve issues related to peace in Afghanistan.

Stanakzai argued that the team for the intra-Afghan dialogue was powerful enough as 65 percent of its members had been drawn from Taliban's strong decision-making body, Rehbari Shura or leadership council. Other 20 members of the team are: Sheikh Abdul Hakim, Maulvi Abdul Kabir, Noor Mohammad Saqib, Mullah Mohammad Zahid Ahmadzai, Mullah Shireen Akhund, Mullah Abdul Lateef Mansoor, Qari Din Mohammad, Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, Mullah Abdul Manan Omari, Sheikh Mohammad Qasim Turkman, Mullah Mohammad Fazil Mazloom, Mullah Noorullah Noori, Mullah Abdul Haq Waseeq, Mullah Matiul Haq Khalis, Anas Haqqani, Mullah Mohammad Nabi Omari, Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, and Maulvi Fareed.

Stanakzai told The News that the date for the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government hasn't been fixed yet. He said their team has been tasked with the implementation of the peace accord signed with the US in Doha this year on February 29. The team, he said, would discuss all issues with the Afghan government, including prisoners' swap and finding a negotiated settlement to the Afghan crisis. "We are here to talk to them and restore peace to Afghanistan. But before joining the intra- Afghan dialogue, the Afghan government will need to fulfil its commitment and release our remaining 320 prisoners," said the Taliban chief negotiator.

According to Stanakzai, it was mentioned in the February 29 peace accord with the US that the Taliban would free 1000 prisoners of the Afghan government and in return, the Afghan government would release 5000 Taliban. "March 10 was the deadline for two sides - Taliban and the Afghan government- to release each other's prisoners. We freed 1005 prisoners of the Afghan government instead of 1000 while they didn't show commitment and were still holding a large number of our prisoners," he said. He said the Afghan government, particularly Dr Ashraf Ghani, was employing various tactics to delay the intra-Afghan dialogue. "What we feel is Ashraf Ghani wants to continue his five years term," he said.

The Afghan government wants the Taliban to declare a ceasefire before the peace talks. Stanakzai said they could announce a ceasefire but once the negotiation process is initiated. "Ceasefire is possible but only when we enter the negotiation process. The ceasefire is declared when talks are underway and we would do that as well," he said. The Afghan government had recently refused to free some of the prisoners, particularly those six prisoners allegedly involved in the killing of French soldiers a few years ago.

They are believed to be Hikmatullah, Said Rasool, Gul Ali, Mohamed Daud, Allah Mohammad and Naqeebullah. The Afghan government claimed that the French government and Australia had raised objections to the release of these six Taliban prisoners. Stanakzai, however, said they would not join the intra-Afghan dialogue until and unless all their prisoners were freed. "This is not fair. First, we had shared the lists of our prisoners with the US and Afghan government two months before the Doha Accord. And after they agreed to release all our 5000 prisoners, we signed the peace accord with the US and agreed to go for the intra-Afghan dialogue once our prisoners are freed," the Taliban top negotiator recalled.

Also, he said they would lodge protest over interference of other countries in Afghanistan's internal affairs. "These counties had invaded our country and it was our religious responsibility to fight them and liberate our country. Those who fought against the occupying forces including France and Australia are dear to us and we would bring them out of jail," Stanakzai vowed.