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Taliban Free Hostages in Prisoner Swap 11/19 06:07

   The Taliban said they freed on Tuesday an American 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.

   ISLAMABAD (AP) -- The Taliban said they freed on Tuesday an American 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.

   According to a Taliban official who spoke on condition of anonymity because 
he wasn't authorized to talk to the media, the release took place in the 
province's Naw Bahar district, a region largely under Taliban control.

   The two hostages, both professors at the American University of Kabul, were 
handed over to U.S. forces and transported from the area in a U.S. helicopter.

   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 the Taliban's deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also leads the fearsome 
Haqqani network.

   It appears the Taliban had refused to hand over the two professors until 
they received proof their men had reached Qatar.

   The American University of Afghanistan confirmed the release of the two 
professors, saying in a statement that its "community shares the relief of the 
families of Kevin and Timothy, and we look forward to providing all the support 
we can to Kevin and Tim and their families."

   Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan also welcomed the release of the two 
professors, saying he appreciates "steps taken by all involved to make it 
possible." Pakistan wields some influence over the Taliban and has played a 
behind-the-scenes role in trying to restart peace talks.

   Afghan President Ashraf Ghani a week ago announced the "conditional release" 
of the three ranking Taliban figures, saying at a press event broadcast live 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, the two captives held by the Taliban were abducted in 2016 
outside the American University in Kabul. 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 Weeks 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, U.S. officials said that American forces had launched a rescue 
mission to free the two, but the captives were not found at the raided location.

   U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. 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 U.S. troops 
from Afghanistan.

   The United States had been close to an agreement in September with the 
Taliban but a fresh wave of violence in the Afghan capital that killed a U.S. 
soldier brought talks and an impending deal to a grinding halt.

   The agreement called for direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan 
government as well as other prominent Afghans to find a negotiated end to the 
war and set out a roadmap for what a post -war Afghanistan would look like.

   Ghani in his discussions with Pompeo and O'Brien said he wanted a reduction 
in violence and an all-out cease-fire, his spokesman said.

   According to a U.S. State Department statement Tuesday, Pompeo told Ghani 
the United States was "committed to work closely together to address violence 
if the President's decision does not produce the intended results."

   Southern Zabul province, where the two professors were freed, is heavily 
controlled by the Taliban and vast parts of it have long been a no-go area for 
the government.

   But according to the Taliban, an unofficial cease-fire is now being observed 
in three districts of the province --- Shahjoy, Shahmatzo and Naw Bahar --- 
possibly to facilitate the release of the two hostages.


(KR)

 
 
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