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Afghan government releases 100 Taliban prisoners after collapse of prisoner swap talks

Captured Taliban fighters are seen inside a prison in Kabul in December. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

KABUL — The Afghan government released 100 Taliban prisoners Wednesday after talks aimed at coordinating a prisoner swap with the Taliban collapsed the day before. Afghan government and Taliban officials had been meeting for days in Kabul to coordinate the release before the Taliban withdrew from the talks Tuesday, accusing the government of "wasting time."

An Afghan official familiar with the development said the release Wednesday was unilateral and intended as a goodwill gesture. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the release with the media.

The Afghan government is under immense pressure from the United States to move forward with peace talks with the Taliban following the signing of a U.S.-Taliban peace deal in February. Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have already been delayed for weeks, setbacks that threaten to derail the fragile U.S.-Taliban peace agreement.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Washington Post, “We have nothing to do with the release of 100 prisoners, as it is not according to the agreed mechanism.” He added that “the prisoner swap process” remains halted.

The prisoners released Wednesday were chosen from a “broader list” that the Taliban delegation shared with the Afghan government, according to a statement from Afghanistan’s National Security Council. The statement said those released did not include the 15 senior Taliban members whose release the Taliban delegation had demanded in the first round of the prisoner exchange.

The statement said that the prisoners released were chosen “based on their health condition, age and length of remaining sentence,” and that all prisoners took an oath never to return to the battlefield.

The U.S.-Taliban peace deal called for thousands of prisoners to be released as a confidence-building measure ahead of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban had previously demanded that all of its prisoners be released at once, but the Afghan government objected to that, citing logistical concerns. The two sides later agreed to move ahead with smaller groups.

Once peace talks with the Taliban begin, securing a cease-fire is expected to be a top priority for the Afghan government. Afghanistan has seen a spike in violence since the U.S.-Taliban peace deal was signed. Taliban attacks mostly in northern Afghanistan have resulted in the deaths of dozens of Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters over the past month, according to local officials.

After the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, the United States ceased all offensive operations against the Taliban but has conducted airstrikes in support of Afghan forces. The Taliban recently cited those strikes when accusing the United States of breaching the peace deal. The U.S. military command in Kabul rejected that accusation and pledged to continue to defend its ally, the Afghan government.

George reported form London. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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