Afghan prisoner swap hits new hurdle ahead of peace talks

France and Australia object to release of seven insurgents among final batch of detainees to be freed

Taliban prisoners are checked with documents as they are released from Pul-e-Charkhi jail in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Afghanistan released the first 80 of a final 400 Taliban prisoners, paving the way for negotiations between the warring sides in Afghanistan’s protracted conflict, the government said Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (Afghanistan's National Security Council via AP)
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The Afghan government and Taliban will go ahead with peace talks in Doha despite the fate of seven jailed insurgents remaining undecided because of objections to their release from France and Australia, officials said.

"The issue of the seven prisoners is still being discussed within the involved parties but it is unlikely to delay the peace talks," said Shared Abdul Kabir Wasiq, deputy spokesman for the Office of National Security.

The government initially announced on Thursday that it had freed the final 400 Taliban detainees out of 5,000 to be released as part of a prisoner exchange for 1,000 prisoners held by the insurgents.

However, concerns were raised by Afghanistan’s allies over the inclusion of Taliban prisoners who were convicted of killing foreign nationals, including from France and Australia.

"The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has received our commandos held hostage by Taliban, after which the government released the remaining 400 convicts, except the few for which our partners have reservations," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said on Twitter.

"Diplomatic efforts are ongoing. We expect direct talks to start promptly."

Only one of the Taliban prisoners in question have been identified. The Australian foreign ministry said he was a former Afghan army sergeant named Hekmatullah who killed three Australian soldiers in an insider attack in 2012 and was sentenced to death. Two others were in involved in an attack on French soldiers in Sorobi district of Kabul in 2008, according to security officials.

A source in the NSC told The National that the United States, which was directly in touch with the Taliban and negotiated the deal for a prisoner swap and peace talks, was working to resolve the issue.

“Arrangements for the convicts of concern are undergoing and I wouldn't want to comment on an evolving situation," the official said.

He denied reports quoting Taliban sources as saying that the prisoners would be taken to the Qatari capital and held in custody there during the peace talks.

"Who said they are being taken to Doha? News reports are unconfirmed. That's the arrangement that is still being worked out," the official said.

The government had delayed the release of the final batch of 400 prisoners demanded by the Taliban as many had been imprisoned for fatal attacks on Afghan and foreign forces as well as civilians.

President Ashraf Ghani handed the decision to a traditional gathering known as a Loya Jirga — a grand assembly of Afghan leaders and tribal elders, which endorsed the release of the prisoners as a way to initiate peace.

"We want the talks to succeed, there's no reason left for the continuation of bloodshed," Mr Faisal told The National.

However, the date of commencement for the negotiations is uncertain, with officials dismissing reports that a government team had already arrived in Doha on Thursday.