Hundreds of Taliban prisoners freed as Afghans hope for truce extension

Ben Farmer
Afghan prisoners line up after their release from Bagram Prison in Parwan province, Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. - AFP

Afghan authorities freed hundreds of Taliban prisoners on Tuesday as they tried to persuade the militants to extend a three-day ceasefire marking the holy Eid festival.

The handover of up to 900 detainees marked the biggest release since a confidence-building prisoner swap was first outlined in February's agreement between the Taliban and America.

Hundreds were freed from the high security Bagram and Pul-e-Charkhi prisons during the course of the day as Kabul tried to persuade the militants to extend their truce in response.

The insurgents issued a surprise ceasefire late on Saturday that was due to end late on Tuesday.

More than 157,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Afghan conflict in the 19 years since the Taliban government was ousted. More than 450 British troops died in the international coalition to bolster the Afghan government.

Taliban prisoners who had been given lengthy terms for attacks on Afghan troops and their international backers streamed out of the prisons onto waiting buses.

Abdul Wasi, 27, from Kandahar province, told AFP he was a "holy warrior" when he was detained eight years ago.

"I was told ... to do jihad until all foreign troops are driven out of our country," he said. "If the foreign troops exit, we won't fight."

America signed a landmark deal with the Taliban in February, agreeing to withdraw from their 19-year conflict if the militants turned against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. The militants also agreed to begin talks with the Afghan government to find a political settlement.

Yet hopes then foundered as the sides disagreed on how to release prisoners and as the Taliban stepped up their campaign of violence.

The February deal had said the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel. In recent weeks the government has released around 1,000 Taliban in small groups, while several hundred captive soldiers and policemen have been freed in return.

Senior Taliban figures suggested the truce could be extended if the prisoners kept being released, but had made no announcement by late on Tuesday. American officials hope talks could then start soon afterward.

Meanwhile the freed prisoners said they had signed written pledges not to return to the battlefield.

Qari Mohammadullah, another freed inmate, said: "We don't want foreigners to stay any longer in our country, they must leave immediately.

"We will continue our jihad until every single foreign force leaves."