The Afghan government and the Taliban are "on the verge of peace talks" after thousands of prominent Afghans approved the release of about 400 'hard-core' militant prisoners, the head of Kabul's peace council said yesterday.
The prisoners' fate has been a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides, which had committed to completing a prisoner exchange before negotiations can start.
The resolution was passed at the end of a three-day "loya jirga" -- a traditional Afghan meeting of tribal elders and other stakeholders sometimes held to decide on controversial issues.
"In order to remove the hurdles for the start of peace talks, stopping bloodshed, and for the good of the public, the jirga approves the release of 400 prisoners as demanded by the Taliban," jirga member Atefa Tayeb announced.
According to an official list seen by AFP, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, including many involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners, with more than 150 of them on death row.
The jirga urged the government to give assurances to the population that the released prisoners would be monitored and would not be allowed to return to the battlefield, adding that foreign fighters should be sent back to their respective countries.
It also demanded a "serious, immediate and lasting ceasefire" in the country.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign a decree to release the prisoners immediately.
The Afghan government has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates, but authorities had baulked at freeing the final prisoners demanded by the Taliban. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed for the release of the detainees, while recognising the decision would be "unpopular".
The prisoners include 44 insurgents of particular concern to the United States and other countries for their role in "high-profile" attacks.
"Based on the information I have, the intra-Afghan talks would begin within two to three days after the release of the 400 Taliban prisoners," former president Hamid Karzai told the loya jirga.
The intra-Afghan talks were slated under a US-Taliban deal agreed in February, in which Washington said it would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021 in return for security guarantees.
President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has said repeatedly that he wants to end America's longest war, which began nearly 20 years ago when Washington ousted the Taliban following the September 11 attacks.