Afghanistan: Taliban break off prisoner-exchange talks with government

The prisoner exchange is main step in the US-brokered peace talks

FILE - In this May 28, 2019, file photo, Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia. After months of deliberation Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced his 21-member team to negotiate peace with the Taliban, only to have his political opponent reject it Friday, March 27, 2020, as not inclusive enough. Shaheen said the Taliban would send four members to Bagram, north of Kabul, to oversee the release of their prisoners, also part of the deal signed with the United States. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
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The Taliban on Tuesday recalled the insurgent group's negotiators from Afghanistan hours after they suspended talks on a prisoner exchange process with the Afghan government, a spokesman for the group said in a tweet.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, said "the intentional delays in the release of our prisoners violates the peace agreement, therefore we call back our technical team back from Kabul".

Earlier on Tuesday, the Taliban broke off talks with the Afghan government on a prisoner exchange, a main step in peace talks being brokered by the US after it agreed on a troop withdrawal with the militants.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the extremist group's political office in Qatar, said on Twitter that a technical team would not participate in "fruitless meetings" and the release of their prisoners was being "delayed under one pretext or another".

The late February pact between the US and the Taliban, under which US-led international forces will withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, is the best chance yet of ending the 18-year war.

But peace hinges on talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the militants. A prisoner exchange is meant to build confidence on both sides for those talks.

A spokesman for the government said it would maintain its work on the prisoner release plan.

"We ask the Taliban to not sabotage the process by making excuses now," said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the National Security Council in Kabul.

The Taliban's suspension of the talks could lead to an escalation of violence, which in turn could threaten the plan to withdraw American troops, a major objective of US President Donald Trump.

A three-member Taliban team arrived in Kabul last month from Qatar to begin the prisoner exchange process. Last week, Afghan officials said they would release 100 Taliban prisoners who were sick or over the age of 50.

In exchange, the Taliban were expected to free 20 members of the Afghan security forces. Ultimately, both sides would aim to release the 6,000 prisoners they are holding.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the arrival in Kabul of the Taliban team as good news.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Pompeo last month travelled to Kabul and the Qatari capital of Doha in a bid to nudge the prisoner process forward.

Afghan government officials have said the Taliban were demanding the release of senior commanders involved in some of the most violent attacks in recent years.