Afghanistan releases three Taliban militants in bid to free US and Australian hostages

President Ashraf Ghani said release was conditional on militants freeing two academics abducted in 2016

Kidnapped teachers American Kevin King (left) and Timothy Weeks. AP
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The Afghan government on Tuesday released three high-ranking Taliban commanders in exchange for a US and Australian professor.

The three members belong to the Haqqani network, considered to be one of the most brutal branches of the Taliban.

Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed the release of the three militants, and told The National that they will be travelling to Qatar's capital Doha. Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani said the release would be "conditional" and "in exchange" for the university professors.

Anas Haqqani, the youngest son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqani movement’s founder, was released alongside Haji Mili Khan and Hafiz Rashid, the brother of Mohammad Omari, a former Guantanamo inmate who now resides in Doha.

Anas Haqqani and Mohammad Omari were arrested in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost Province in 2014, while Haji Mili Khan is believed to have been arrested by the US in Paktika Province in 2011. All three were held in a prison near the Bagram airbase north of the capital Kabul.

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2019, file photo, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks to journalists after voting at Amani high school, near the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. President Ghani said Tuesday, Nov. 12, his government has released three Taliban figures in effort to have the insurgents free an American and an Australian professor they abducted in 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weekes, both university professors at the American University in Kabul, had been kidnapped while travelling in their car in August 2016.

Their health had been deteriorating, with Mr King reportedly suffering from heart and kidney problems, and Mr Weekes,in a video message released by the Taliban, pleading for President Donald Trump to save him, saying that “if we stay here for much longer, we will be killed. I don’t want to die here.”

The Taliban said that they were trying to get medical help to the hostages.

“We have tried to treat him [Kevin King] from time to time, but we do not have medical facilities as we are in a war situation,” their statement read.

The prisoner swap may open an opportunity for the Afghan government to begin direct negotiations with the Taliban. The group has long refused to formally meet with the Afghan government.

“The prisoner/hostage swap is essential to get US-Taliban negotiations started again, after President Trump had declared them ‘dead,’ Co-Director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network Thomas Ruttig said.

“US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad needs to show something to the President, to persuade him to switch the green light on again for these talks. The release of the US and the Australian professors could be it.”

Peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban were cancelled by President Trump in September via Twitter, ending a dialogue that had started at the beginning of the year.

Mr Khalilzad has since worked hard to negotiate the exchange of prisoners and hostages.

“Successful US-Taliban negotiations are the only way to get direct government-Taliban peace negotiations going, which the Taliban still refuse before a finalised agreement with the US,” Mr Ruttig explained.