Taliban demands prisoner release as condition for talks

Taliban demands release of political prisoners as condition for rejoining peace talks with government

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Taliban militants, who were arrested by Afghan police, stand during a presentation to the media in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on January 20, 2016

Afghanistan's Taliban demanded the release of political prisoners as one of the conditions that they said on Sunday would need to be met before they consider re-joining peace talks aimed at ending the 15-year war.

These are "among the preliminary steps needed for peace," the Taliban said in a statement. "Without them, progress towards peace is not feasible."

The demands came a day after participants from the Taliban and former Afghan officials met in Qatar at a conference to resolve the war organised by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a Nobel peace prize-winning crisis group.

At the meeting, the militant group demanded to be removed from a United Nations blacklist before re-joining peace talks.

The rare talks are a step towards a peace process that has proved elusive during a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans since the Taliban was driven from power by the 2001 US-led military operation.

Taliban forces have stepped up their campaign in the last year to topple Kabul's government, which has struggled since most foreign troops left at the end of 2014.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States met last week to lay the ground for a negotiated end to the war and called for the Taliban to re-join the peace process. The Taliban did not attend the talks.

Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry head of Pakistani delegations (L) shakes hand with members of Afghan delegations before a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 18, 2016

The ultimate goal of the meetings is to draw representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban into direct negotiations on the country's future.

The first formal peace talks with the Taliban since the start of the war collapsed last year after it was announced its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who sanctioned the talks, had been dead for two years, throwing the group into disarray.

Subsequent meetings were cancelled and relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan chilled after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani publicly accused Pakistan of using the Taliban to wage war on his country.

However, the meetings were resumed after Pakistani Army General Raheel Sharif met with President Ashraf Ghani to set a course for the peace talks in Kabul in December.

Despite efforts to restart talks, since the start of the year, the Taliban has ramped up their campaign of violence across Afghanistan, with suicide attacks and territorial gains in Helmand province.

At present, the Taliban controls or contests more territory than at any time since it was ousted in 2001.

Although the Afghan Army and the Taliban are intensifying fighting on the battlefield, a political settlement is seen as the most likely solution to the conflict.

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour's faction gave signals that it is warming to the thought of finally participating in peace talks and other groups are thinking of negotiating, a senior member of the movement previously announced.

Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, the supreme leader of the High Council of the Afghanistan Islamic Emirate (a splinter Taliban group), rejected Mansour's authority and any talks where an intermediary role is held by Pakistan, the US or China.

The next round of talks will be on February 6 in Islamabad.

TRTWorld and agencies