ISLAMABAD >> Three ranking Taliban prisoners released by the Kabul government have been flown to Qatar for an expected swap for an American and an Australian hostage held by the insurgents since their abduction in 2016, Taliban officials said Tuesday.
The whereabouts of the two hostages — American, Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — was not immediately known.
The Taliban officials told The Associated Press that the exchange would likely take place on Tuesday. They said the three of their members arrived in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar on Monday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The three include Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also heads the fearsome Haqqani network.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani a week ago announced the “conditional release” of the Taliban figures, saying at a press event broadcast live on state television that it was a very hard decision he felt he had to make in the interest of the Afghan people.
King and Weeks, the two captives held by the Taliban 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 captives. A January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt. In the later video, King and Weeks 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made separate calls to Ghani on Monday to discuss the prisoners’ release, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
The release and swap were intended to try to restart talks to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war and allow for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The United States had been close to an agreement in September with the Taliban but a fresh wave of violence in the Afghan capital that killed a U.S. soldier brought talks and an impending deal to a grinding halt.
The agreement called for direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government as well as other prominent Afghans to find a negotiated end to the war and set out a roadmap for what a post -war Afghanistan would look like.
Ghani in his discussions with Pompeo and O’Brien said he wanted a reduction in violence and an all-out cease-fire, his spokesman said.
According to a U.S. State Department statement Tuesday, Pompeo told Ghani the United States was “committed to work closely together to address violence if the President’s decision does not produce the intended results.”