Taliban break off talks with Afghan government on prisoner exchange

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A member of the Taliban holds a flag in Kabul, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. The writing on the flag reads: 'There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah'.

A member of the Taliban holds a flag in Kabul, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. The writing on the flag reads: 'There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah'.

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban on Tuesday broke off talks with the Afghan government on a prisoner exchange, a main step in peace talks being brokered by the United States after it agreed on a troop withdrawal pact with the militants.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Islamist insurgent group's political office in Qatar, said on Twitter a technical team would not participate in "fruitless meetings" and the release of their prisoners was being "delayed under one pretext or another".

The announcement represented the latest setback for the U.S.-led effort to end America's longest war and decades of strife in Afghanistan that also has been hampered by violence and a leadership feud between the country's top politicians.

The late February pact between the United States and the Taliban, under which U.S.-led international forces will withdraw in phases in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, is the best chance yet of ending the 18-year U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

But peace hinges on talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the militants. A prisoner exchange is meant to build confidence on both sides for those talks.

A spokesman for the government said it would continue working on the prisoner release plan.

"We ask the Taliban to not sabotage the process by making excuses now," said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the National Security Council in Kabul.

The Taliban suspension of the talks could lead to an escalation of violence, which in turn could threaten the plan to withdraw U.S. troops, a major objective of President Donald Trump.

A three-member Taliban team arrived in Kabul last month from Qatar to begin the prisoner exchange process. Last week, Afghan officials said they would release 100 Taliban prisoners who were sick or over the age of 50.

In exchange, the Taliban were expected to free 20 members of the Afghan security forces. Ultimately both sides would aim to release the 6,000 prisoners they are holding.

Despite the setback over the prisoner releases, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said progress had been made since he visited Kabul on March 23 to press Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah to end a feud over the results of a disputed September election.

"We've made some progress, but we see them posturing in the media, we see statements that come out," he told a State Department news conference.

While the feud has persisted, Pompeo's visit and his announcement of a $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to Afghanistan appeared to have an impact, with Ghani on March 26 announcing a delegation for peace talks with the Taliban that won Abdullah's endorsement.

Pompeo reiterated a call for those negotiations to start.

"I'm confident in the days ahead we'll have things that look like steps backward, but I'm also hopeful that all the parties are sincere and wanting what's good for the Afghan people," he said.