ISLAMABAD - The Afghan government freed 100 Taliban prisoners Wednesday, a day after the insurgent group accused Kabul of foot-dragging and recalled its team from week-long meetings on a much-awaited prisoner swap between the two foes.
The spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council said the inmates were released under a presidential decree, maintaining that the move was part of government efforts aimed at promoting peace and containment of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Javid Faisal noted the Afghan intelligence agency and relevant legal authorities "thoroughly vetted" the prisoners "based on their health condition, age and length of remaining sentence" before setting them free. He emphasized that all the prisoners took an oath not to rejoin the Taliban and return to the battlefield.
The Taliban swiftly rejected Kabul's announcement, saying it has nothing to do with the provisions outlined in their agreement with the United States.
Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said their team had already been recalled from Kabul after pulling out of "fruitless" meetings over coordinating the prisoner swap.
"A prisoner release process which is not in line with the terms of our agreement with America is not acceptable to us," Mujahid told VOA.
The Taliban-Kabul talks broke down on Tuesday after Afghan officials refused to release 15 senior insurgent commanders, saying the men had been involved in major attacks and were believed to be a serious security threat.
Qatar-based Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen denied that the 15 were senior commanders. "These 15 were selected from the list of 5,000 prisoners because they can help in identification and verification of other Taliban prisoners," Shaheen told VOA while defending his group's decision to pull out of the talks.
The landmark February 29 U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at ending the war requires the Afghan government to free up to 5,000 insurgent prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government detainees in Taliban custody.
The prisoner swap, seen as a confidence-building measure, was supposed to take place by March 10, when Afghan warring sides were scheduled to come to the table and negotiate a sustainable peace as well as power-sharing in post-war Afghanistan.
The Taliban says all 5,000 prisoners would have to be freed before it engages in intra-Afghan peace talks. But the Afghan government maintains it would gradually release the prisoners, subject to a reduction in insurgent violence and progress in talks once they begin.
The Taliban threatened last week to step up attacks on Afghan military targets if the prisoners are not freed.
The prolonged delay in starting intra-Afghan peace talks has concerned the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday challenges in moving the peace process forward were not unexpected. He underlined, however, the need for all parties to implement the agreement to help build a "peaceful, reconciled" Afghanistan.
"I don't think there's any ambiguity with respect to how all of the parties understand what America's continued role will be if they execute this peace and reconciliation process properly, appropriately, efficiently," Pompeo told reporters in Washington.
The United States is committed to withdrawing all American and coalition forces from Afghanistan in the next 14 months under the deal with the Taliban, and a "conditions-based" U.S. military drawdown has already started.
The February 29 agreement commits the insurgents to ensure the security of U.S. and its allies. But it does not bind the Taliban not to attack Afghan security forces. For its part, the U.S. military has committed to defend Afghan partners if they are attacked.