Taliban free US, Australian teachers in prisoner swap

Two foreign professors held hostage by Taliban since 2016 were freed on Tuesday after the Afghan government released three commanders of a network allied to the terror group and handed them to their political office in Qatar, news reports say.

The prisoner swap was part of an effort by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, above, to revive peace talks that collapsed in September. It comes a day after he held talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

US national Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were freed in the southern province of Zabul near the Pakistan border. The two were teaching at the American University of Kabul before they were kidnapped near the campus.

Details of their release were not immediately available.

Weeks’ father Mervyn told ABC that the family was “very relieved” at the news of his release.

The American University in Kabul too expressed its happiness over the release of the two teachers.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked the US and Afghan governments for securing their release.

The three terrorists freed were senior commanders of the Haqqani network Mali Khan, Hafiz Rashid and Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Taliban’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the three commanders were arrested between 2011 and 2014 and kept at a detention centre in Bagram air base.

The Haqqani network, designated by the US government as a terrorist organisation, had carried out several attacks on Afghan and foreign assets and kidnapped and killed foreigners.

According to Mujahid, the prisoner swap was done as a goodwill gesture and to keep peace talks between Taliban and the US going.

Ghani announced the plan to swap prisoners during last week hoping this would help in bringing peace and stability to his war-torn country.

As the release of the prisoners got slightly delayed, Kabul blamed the Taliban and the Taliban passed the blame to Washington.

The talks between the US and Taliban leaders which began in Qatar in October last year almost reached a deal this September when President Donald Trump abruptly called it off after a terrorist attack in Kabul killed an American soldier and 11 people.

If the prisoner swap revives peace talks, the process may either start afresh or resume from where Washington left it in September.

A draft peace deal which was awaiting Trump’s approval in September said some 5,000 US soldiers will leave Afghanistan if Taliban promises not to promote terrorist groups in future.