The Taliban said that yesterday they freed a US and an Australian hostage held since 2016 in exchange for three top Taliban figures who were released by the Kabul government and flown out of Afghanistan the previous day.
The hostages — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — were released in southern Zabul Province, ending their more than three years in captivity.
The release took place in the province’s Now Bahar District, a region largely under Taliban control, said a Taliban official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A local police source said that the two hostages, both professors at the American University of Afghanistan, were handed over to US forces and flown out of Zabul on US helicopters.
Their freedom came hours after the Afghan government freed three Taliban prisoners and sent them to Qatar. They included Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also leads the fearsome Haqqani network.
It appears the Taliban had refused to hand over the professors until they received proof that their men had reached Qatar, although the trio had not yet been handed over to the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani a week ago announced the “conditional release” of the Taliban figures, telling a news conference broadcast 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 were abducted outside their university.
The following year, the Taliban released two videos showing the pair. The January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt, but in a later video, King and Weeks looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16 that year.
They said they were being treated well by the Taliban, but that they remained prisoners and appealed to their governments to help set them free.
It was impossible to know whether they were forced to speak.
Subsequently, US officials said that US forces had launched a rescue mission to free the two, but the captives were not found at the raided location.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US 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 US troops from Afghanistan.
The US had been close to an agreement in September with the Taliban, but a fresh wave of violence in Kabul that killed a US soldier brought talks and an impending deal to a grinding halt.
Additional reporting by AFP
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