‘Finalized after consulting with our international allies, especially the US.’ Afghani President Ashraf Ghani (right) hosts US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Kabul on October 21. (Afghanistan Presidency - handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Taliban to Free American, Australian Hostages

Afghanistan has released three senior Taliban prisoners to ‘third party’ in swap apparently engineered with Pakistan’s help

[Islamabad] Authorities in Afghanistan have released three prominent Taliban leaders. In return, the Taliban say they will release two Western captives they have held for over three years.

Prof. Kevin King, 63, a US citizen, and a colleague, Prof. Timothy Weekes, 50, an Australian, were taken hostage at gunpoint in 2016 by a Taliban offshoot known as the Haqqani network. Both taught English at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, the city in which they were kidnapped.

In 2017, the Taliban released video footage in which both appealed to their governments to help free them. US-led forces carried out a rescue mission, but neither hostage was found.

In a live statement televised on Tuesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that Anas Haqqani, a top Taliban leader, and senior commanders Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Abdul Rashid Umari, had been “conditionally released” as part of the deal.

“It was a very hard decision, but it was finalized after consulting with our international allies, especially the US,” Ghani said. “Our joint aim is to facilitate face-to-face negotiations with the Taliban.”

A well-placed Taliban source who asked not to be identified told The Media Line that “both professors had been handed over to a third party in preparation for the exchange.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was apparently involved in negotiating the swap. During his July visit to the US, he repeatedly said the Taliban could soon release two western hostages, with Islamabad backing up the deal.

“We will be giving you good news about two hostages,” Khan told US President Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House.

Dr. Diana Sedney, an official at the American University of Afghanistan, said she was “encouraged” to hear about the coming release of the two professors, adding that the university had not been part of the negotiations.

“We continue to wait for further definitive information,” she told The Media Line. “We urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years.”

Haqqani achieved significant status among the Taliban through his fundraising in Gulf states. He also directed Taliban-Haqqani network social-media efforts. His older brother, Sirajuddin, the head of the Haqqani network, maintains close ties with both the Taliban and al-Qaida. The network is believed to be responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against US-led forces in Afghanistan, and against Afghan officials.

Abdul Haye Amrkhel, a former regional operative for Afghani intelligence, told The Media Line that “the CIA arrested Anas Haqqani and Hafiz Abdul Rashid Umeri at Bahrain airport. Later, both were handed over to Afghan security forces.”

Amrkhel said that Haqqani and Umeri had been on their way to Qatar to meet with Umeri’s brother, Nabi, one of the prisoners released in 2014 from the Guantanamo prison facility in exchange for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Nabi Umeri, he added, is presently an active member of the Taliban’s Doha-based political team.

Noman Wahdatyar, a former deputy director of the Afghani Foreign Ministry, told The Media Line that government officials had “recently held secret meetings” with the team in the Qatari capital.

The three prisoners released by Afghanistan as part of the swap are expected to travel to Doha, where they will be kept under surveillance. Haqqani is expected to join the political team, Wahdatyar said.

Arif Khan, a geostrategic analyst and Afghan expert, described Islamabad’s role in the prisoner swap as “pivotal.”

He told The Media Line that the release of Haqqani, Khan and Umari “happened on the same day” that a high-powered Pakistani delegation headed by Sohail Mahmood, a top Foreign Ministry official, and Gen. Faiz Hameed, director of the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, were in Kabul.

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