Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has started the process to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a “goodwill gesture”, his spokesperson said, in a move that came after the government welcomed the armed group’s surprise announcement of a three-day ceasefire during the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The decision to release the prisoners was taken “to ensure success of the peace process”, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the ceasefire appeared to hold as there were no reports of clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces by the end of the first day on Sunday.
Ghani said a government delegation was “ready to immediately start the peace talks” with the Taliban.
Government negotiators would be headed by Ghani’s former rival Abdullah Abdullah after the two signed a power-sharing deal last week that ended a months-long political crisis.
A US-Taliban agreement signed in February in Qatar’s capital, Doha, stipulated that the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners while the Taliban would free about 1,000 Afghan security forces personnel.
The prisoner swap was mentioned in the agreement as a “confidence-building measure” before long-awaited peace talks between the government and Taliban.
Before Sunday’s announcement, Kabul had already released about 1,000 Taliban inmates while the Taliban had freed roughly 300 members of the Afghan security forces, according to reports.
The Taliban said they were committed to freeing prisoners, but reminded Kabul that the agreement was to “release 5,000” of their members as agreed with the US in Doha.
“This process should be completed in order to remove hurdles in the way of commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter.
The Taliban’s offer of a ceasefire came just days after leader Haibatullah Akhunzada urged Washington “not to waste” the opportunity offered by the Doha agreement that set the stage for the withdrawal of US troops from the country after more than 18 years.
US Special Representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered the February 29 agreement, said the ceasefire was “a momentous opportunity that should not be missed” while pledging that the US would “do its part to help”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also hailed the ceasefire, but said in a statement on Sunday that he expected “the Taliban to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield”.
He also urged the two sides to avoid escalating violence after Eid, the festival marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has made it a priority to end the country’s longest war and, in a bid to pull out foreign forces, US officials have been pushing the Taliban and government leaders to hold peace talks.
Analysts, however, say the Taliban has been emboldened by the agreement with the US, and attacks by the group have continued since the signing.
War-weary residents in the capital, Kabul, expressed relief after the ceasefire was announced.
In a similar holiday truce in 2018, there were unprecedented scenes of fighters from opposite sides embracing and taking selfies.