Afghan government to release key Taliban figure

Spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council Kabir Haqmal confirmed the meeting to reporters in Kabul and said the two sides discussed ways of normalising relations. — Video screengrab courtesy Kabir Haqmal Twitter

The Taliban had kidnapped the Australian and American professors in August 2016 from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

Ghani said at a press event broadcast live on state television that the release of the Taliban fighters linked to the notorious Haqqani Network was a hard decision made in the "interest of the Afghan people".

President Ghani further added that Haji Mali and Abdul Rashid are the two other senior Taliban leaders the government would release with Anas Haqqani.

There have been two US special operations raids by the Joint Special Operations Command to attempt to rescue King and Weeks in Afghanistan, not Pakistan - where Taliban leadership has a history of hiding high-level hostages.

Neither side has yet confirmed that the prisoners have been exchanged.

Mr King and Mr Weeks were both captured at gunpoint in Kabul in 2016 as they left their university compound, and have been seldom seen since.

The exact condition of the two men remains unclear, but in his speech Mr Ghani noted "their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists".

The release of the Taliban officials is meant to show Afghanistan's government's willingness toward peace talks, the president said.

A Taliban spokesman earlier this year said that movement was determined to obtain Mr Haqqani's release and named him as a member of a negotiating team that would hold talks with U.S. officials.

He also said that the decision was made after authorities became aware that one of the prisoners was deteriorating in health, and in consultation with the United States and the worldwide community.

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A Taliban commander at that time called the alleged demand "unrealistic".

It's unclear where King is now, but the US military will likely be involved in overseeing his and Weeks's release, as USA special forces were with the Taliban's release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Taliban bombings, including the death of an American soldier, prompted the abruptly end those negotiations in September but the White House has since tried to get talks back on track.

The peace talks have been aimed at ending the United States' longest war.

The three were under the custody of the Afghan government, Ghani said, and were held at the Bagram prison, an air base that also houses US troops just outside Kabul.

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani speaks during the first day of the presidential election campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 28, 2019.

Anas Haqqani the younger brother of the Haqqani network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani. Anas Haqqani has been in Afghan custody since October 2014 when USA security forces nabbed him while en route to Qatar from Bahrain.

Meanwhile, talks are underway about another round of so-called "intra-Afghan dialogue", this time in Beijing, which would include a wide selection of Afghan figures and Taliban representatives.

The Haqqani network held Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl captive for five years.

A US military judge in 2017 spared Bergdahl from prison for walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009, sentencing him to a dishonorable discharge and a reduction in rank but no time behind bars.

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