Three ranking Taliban prisoners have been released by the Afghan government and flown to Qatar for an expected swap for two Western hostages held by the militant group, Taliban sources say.
The whereabouts of the two Western captives — U.S. national Keven King and Australian Timothy Weeks — were not immediately known.
Taliban sources familiar with the prisoner exchange were quoted as saying that the two professors of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul would be released later on November 19.
The previous day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to “review the steps necessary to implement President Ghani’s decision to release three high-level Taliban detainees,” the State Department said.
“Pompeo reiterated U.S. support for Ghani’s decision and committed to work closely together to address violence if the president’s decision does not produce the intended results,” according to the statement.
The arrangement is seen by the Afghan government as a key move in securing direct talks with the Taliban, which has so far refused to engage with what it calls a “puppet” regime in Kabul.
The United States has been holding a series of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar over recent years in an attempt to end the 18-year war.
King, 60, and Weeks, 48, were kidnapped by the Taliban in August 2016.
They are to be swapped for Anas Haqqani — the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network — and two other prominent militants: Hafiz Rashid Omari and Haji Milli Khan.
The Haqqani network is known for carrying out brutal attacks in Afghanistan and is part of the Taliban group.
Upon landing in Doha on November 19, the three Taliban commanders were handed over to the Taliban political office in the Qatari capital, Reuters reported.
The three Taliban commanders will remain under “house arrest” in Doha.
A week ago, Ghani announced the “conditional release” of the three Taliban figures but the exchange of the two professors stalled, with Kabul blaming the militant group for the delay.
Anas Haqqani and Omari were arrested in the eastern Khost Province in 2014. Haji Milli Khan is the uncle of Anas Haqqani and was reportedly arrested in eastern Paktika Province in 2011.
The United States, after allying with Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father of Sirajuddin and Anas, to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, by 2012 had designated his organization a terrorist group. The group has been fighting NATO and Afghan government forces since 2001.
Hafiz Rashid Omari is the brother of Muhammad Nabi Omari, the former Guantanamo inmate who is currently a key member of the Taliban political office in Qatar.