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Afghan peace talks

Release of 'hard-core' Taliban prisoners in Afghan peace deal sparks controversy

 The Afghan government and the Taliban are "on the verge of peace talks" after thousands of prominent Afghans approved the release of about 400 contentious militant prisoners, 9 August 2020
The Afghan government and the Taliban are "on the verge of peace talks" after thousands of prominent Afghans approved the release of about 400 contentious militant prisoners, 9 August 2020 AFP - HANDOUT

The families of victims of Taliban atrocities have reacted angrily to news that their killers could soon walk free as Kabul and the Taliban discuss freeing hundreds of prisoners as part of a peace deal to end the near 20-year conflict.

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Under the peace deal beteen the Afghan government and the Taliban, 400 inmates accused of serious offences, could soon walk free.

The government accepted the advice of a "loya jirga", a grand assembly of elders, on Sunday to release the “hard-core” Taliban prisoners, paving the way for long-awaited peace talks aimed at ending almost two decades of conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.

"This is a very happy day. Based on the information I have the intra-Afghan talks would begin within two to three days after the release of the 400 Taliban prisoners," former President Hamid Karzai told the gathering.

The prisoners' fate had been a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban armed group.

"The decision of the loya jirga has removed the last excuse and obstacles on the way to peace talks," said Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading the government's peace process and was appointed head of the elders' assembly.

The prisoner exchange was part of a US-Taliban agreement signed in February, which saw Washington agree to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for a pledge from the insurgents to hold peace talks with Kabul.

Unpopular move

The government of Ashraf Ghani has released almost 5,000 Taliban inmates already to kickstart the talks, but had baulked at freeing the remaining 400 prisoners demanded by the Taliban.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pushed for the detainees' release, while recognising the decision would be "unpopular".

The prisoners consist of 44 insurgents accused of "high-profile" attacks against citizens from the United States and other countries, including France.

The family of a French woman murdered in Afghanistan said Saturday they could not accept the release of her killers.

Bettina Goislard was working for the UN refugee agency when she was killed in 2003 in Ghazni, south of Kabul, by two men who are on the list of Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and may be set free.

"Such a decision to free (them) made on the basis of horse-trading would be, to us, her family, inconceivable," Bettina's parents, brother and sister said in a statement.

As well asBettina's two killers, there are some 150 others who have been sentenced to death for serious crimes.

No redemption

In Australia, the families of three Australian soldiers killed by a rogue Afghan prisoner in a "green on blue" attack in 2012 have been advised by the Department of Defence that the killer appears certain to be released under the Afghan-Taliban prisoner swap deal.

The Afghan sergeant named Hekmatullah was charged with killing Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday wrote to US President Donald Trump, pleading with him to prevent the killer walking free from Kabul's Pul-e-Charkhi prison.

US politics

Lawmaker Belquis Roshan, an outspoken women's rights activist, protested against the prisoners' release, unfurling a banner reading: "Redeeming Taliban is national treason."

The messages might be falling on deaf ears however. President Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, has repeatedly said that he wants to end America's longest war, starting by reducing troop levels in the country to below 5,000 by mid-2021.

Experts say the intra-Afghan talks, which are hinged on the controversial release of militant prisoners, provides Trump with the security guarantees he needs to wind down the US operation.

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