Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday announced that his government has released three prominent Taliban figures in an effort to get the insurgents to free an American and an Australian professor they abducted in 2016 and have held captive for over three years.
At a press event broadcast live on state television, Ghani told the nation that the “conditional release” was a very hard decision he felt he had to make in the interest of the Afghan people.
The announcement comes at a sensitive time for Ghani, as President Donald Trump halted talks between the US and the Taliban in September, after a particularly deadly spate of Taliban attacks, including a Kabul suicide bombing that killed a US Soldier. Also, the future of Ghani’s government is in doubt as the results from the September 28 presidential elections have not been released yet. Preliminary results are expected on November14.
The three members of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network that Ghani said were being released include Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid. Ghani added that they are being released “conditionally in exchange” for the two professors.
By mid-afternoon, no visuals had emerged of the three figures. It was not immediately clear if they were still in Afghanistan, on their way or had already been sent – for example – to Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office.
There was also no statement from the Taliban or the Haqqani faction holding the American and Australian hostages, or any indication if and where the two would be freed.
The three Taliban figures were under the custody of the Afghan government, Ghani said, and were held at the Bagram prison, an air base that also houses U.S. Troops just outside Kabul.
“In a demonstration of respect for humanity by the government and nation of Afghanistan, we decided to conditionally release these three Taliban prisoners who were arrested in close cooperation with our international partners from other countries,” Ghani said, without elaborating.
The Taliban have long demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin, the deputy head of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network, often considered the strongest of the Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.
Anas Haqqani was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and handed over to the Afghan government, which later sentenced him to death. It was not clear when his execution was supposed to take place.
The two captives held by the Taliban – an American identified as Kevin King and an Australian man identified as Timothy Weekes – were abducted in 2016 outside the American University in Kabul where they both work as teachers.
The following year, the Taliban released two videos showing the captives. A January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt. In the later video, King and Weekes looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16 that year.
Both said they are being treated well by the Taliban but that they remain 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 American forces had launched a rescue mission to free the two, but the captives were not found at the raided location.