PESHAWAR (Dispatches) – The Afghan Taliban have released American and Australian university professors held hostage for more than three years, Afghan government officials say, completing a delayed prisoner swap and raising hopes for a revival of talks.
American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were kidnapped in August 2016 from outside the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul where both worked as professors. They were freed in return for the release of three Taliban commanders under a swap that had been long delayed, the officials said.
The U.S.-backed government’s decision to carry out the swap is seen as key to securing direct talks with the militants, who have, until now, refused to engage with what they call an illegitimate "puppet” regime in Kabul.
Talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at ending their 18-year war collapsed in September after President Donald Trump called off what he described as a planned meeting at his Camp David presidential retreat.
"The two professors are safely freed and are being taken care of now,” said a senior Afghan official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He did not provide further details.
Earlier on Tuesday, three Taliban sources familiar with the deal, including one in Qatar, home to the political leadership of the Afghan Taliban, said the three Taliban commanders who are part of the swap were freed from jail in Afghanistan.
"Soon after their release, they were flown to Doha and handed over to the political office in Qatar,” said a Taliban leader in Afghanistan, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the deal.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the release of weeks.
"We regard this release as one of a series of confidence-building measures that are taking place in Afghanistan,” Morrison said in a joint statement with his foreign minister. "We hope that such measures will set the stage for a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue.”
Spokesmen for the Afghan government and the United States embassy in Kabul were not immediately available for comment.
Forces with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) escort alleged Taliban and Daesh militants after presenting them to the media, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on May 23, 2019.