The Afghan government will release three high-ranking Taliban figures in exchange for American and Australian professors kidnapped nearly three years ago, President Ashraf Ghani’s office announced on Tuesday. The two men – an American identified as Kevin King and an Australian identified as Timothy Weekes – were abducted from the capital, Kabul, outside the American University in 2016.
“We have decided to conditionally release three Taliban prisoners who were arrested outside the country with the help of our international partners and have been in Bagram prison in the custody of the Afghan government for some time,” the Afghan president said.
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”.
The Afghan president said that the three Taliban leaders – Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan and Hafiz Rashid – are being released “conditionally in exchange” for the two professors. Anas Haqqani, whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban affiliate, was captured in 2014.
Ghani did not specify the fate of the Western hostages and it was not clear when or where they would be freed, but he noted in his speech that “their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists”.
The Afghan leader added that the release of the two professors would “pave the way” for the start of unofficial direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who long have refused to negotiate with Ghani’s administration.
The Taliban, which has been waging an armed rebellion since being toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, has held a series of talks with the United States in the Qatari capital, Doha. The two sides were on the verge of a peace deal in September when US President Donald Trump called off the talks after an American soldier was killed in Taliban attack.
In August 2016, gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped the two professors, who later appeared looking haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the rebels going on to say that one of the hostages was in poor health.
The elite American University of Afghanistan opened in 2006 and has attracted a number of faculty members from Western countries. The US and the Australian embassies in Kabul declined to provide immediate comment. American University also did not comment.