Taliban rule out taking part in Afghan talks until prisoners released

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In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan

In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban militants will not take part in intra-Afghan talks until about 5,000 of their prisoners are released, a spokesman said on Monday, presenting a major possible barrier to ending the war.

Under an accord between the United States and the Islamist Taliban signed on Saturday, the two sides are committed to working toward the release of combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure.

The agreement calls for up to 5,000 jailed Taliban prisoners to be released in exchange for up to 1,000 Afghan government captives by March 10.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, not involved in the talks, has rejected that demand.

"We are fully ready for the intra-Afghan talks, but we are waiting for the release of our 5,000 prisoners," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by phone.

"If our 5,000 prisoners - 100 or 200 more or less does not matter - do not get released there will be no intra-Afghan talks."

The United States has said it hopes negotiations toward a permanent political settlement and ceasefire can start in coming days, but Western diplomats and analysts see stark challenges ahead.

Ghani said on Sunday that U.S. President Donald Trump had not asked for the release of the prisoners and that the issue of prisoner releases should be discussed as part of a comprehensive peace deal.

"The Afghan government has not made any commitment to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of any potential negotiation," Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Ghani, said in response to the Taliban's statements on Monday.

He added that the prisoner release "cannot be a requisite for talks", and instead should be part of the negotiations.

A joint statement from the United States and the Afghan government says that the government would take part in discussions on the "feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides" but does not mention the specific number or timeframe.

Zabihullah said the majority of prisoners on the list of 5,000 had been captured by American forces and were held in Afghan government prisons and that they had prioritized sick and older prisoners.

U.S.-led forces ousted the hardline militants from power in 2001.

Zabihullah said that an agreement of a reduction in violence in the seven days leading up to Saturday's pact in Doha had formally ended.

"As we are receiving reports that people are enjoying the reduction in violence, we don't want to spoil their happiness, but it does not mean that we will not take our normal military activities back to the level that we were before," he said.

"It could be any time, it could be after an hour, tonight, tomorrow or the day after."

The Afghan war has been in stalemate for more than 18 years, with Taliban forces controlling or contesting more territory yet unable to capture and hold major urban centers.

Under the agreement, the United States is committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from 13,000 within 135 days of signing.

It also is committed to work with allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over that period, if the Taliban adhere to their security guarantees and ceasefire.

A full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces would occur within 14 months, a joint statement said. The withdrawal depends on security guarantees by the Taliban.