KABUL -- Three high-ranking Taliban prisoners will be released in an apparent exchange for two Western hostages whom the insurgents kidnapped in 2016, said President Ashraf Ghani Tuesday (November 12).
The three Taliban prisoners include Anas Haqqani, who was arrested in 2014 and whose older brother Sirajuddin is the deputy Taliban leader and commander of the Haqqani Network, a notorious Taliban affiliate.
"We have decided to conditionally release three Taliban prisoners who... have been in Bagram prison," Ghani said in an announcement at the presidential palace in Kabul.
The other two Taliban prisoners to be released are Haji Mali Khan, believed to be the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani; and Abdul Rashid, said to be the brother of Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban's political office in Qatar.
Ghani did not specify the fate of the Western hostages -- an Australian and an American -- and it was not clear when or where they would be freed.
"Their health has been deteriorating while in the custody of the terrorists", he noted in his speech.
The release of the two professors will "pave the way" for the start of direct talks between his government and the Taliban, who have long refused to negotiate with Ghani's administration, he said.
The decision to release the three Taliban prisoners had been "very hard and necessary", said Ghani, flanked by his advisers.
Ghani's announcement came one day after Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency chief, Faiz Hameed, conferred with Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib in Kabul.
"They talked about improving the relation between the two countries," said Kabir Haqma, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Taliban, a charge it denies. US Admiral Mike Mullen described the Haqqani Network in 2011 as a "veritable arm" of Pakistani intelligence.
Hostage 'seriously ill'
In August 2016, gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped two professors of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in the heart of Kabul.
The two, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, later appeared haggard in a Taliban hostage video, with the insurgents going on to say that King was in poor health.
King had been "seriously ill" and the insurgents were worried he could die in their custody, a Taliban source in Pakistan told AFP Tuesday.
The elite AUAF opened in 2006 and has attracted a number of faculty members from Western countries.
In a statement, the AUAF said it was "encouraged" to hear news of the possible release of the two professors.
"While AUAF is not part of these discussions, we continue to urge the immediate and safe return of our faculty members who have been held in captivity, away from their friends and families, for more than three years," the statement read.
The US embassy in Kabul welcomed the decision, calling it "courageous".
"This is the latest in a series of courageous steps that President Ghani and the Afghan government have taken to respond to the Afghan people's overwhelming desire for peace," US Ambassador to Kabul John Bass told TOLOnews on Tuesday.
"We hope the Taliban responds to this important humanitarian gesture with its own humanitarian gesture through the release of prisoners they're holding, particularly Afghan security-force prisoners and western prisoners," Bass said.
"But regardless of how the Taliban responds, the United States will continue to strongly support the Afghan government, the Afghan security forces in defending the people of this country, and supporting the Islamic republic," he added.
Who is Anas Haqqani?
Anas Haqqani's older brother Sirajuddin heads the Haqqani Network, a Taliban affiliate founded by their father, Jalaluddin. It has been blamed for some of the most shocking and brutal attacks in Afghanistan since 2001.
Anas was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to death in 2016, with Afghan authorities accusing him of being a high-level player in the network. The Taliban have long demanded his release, insisting he is a student.
Speculation he might be freed in return for Taliban concessions has swirled repeatedly since then -- especially since the United States began holding direct talks with the insurgents last year.
His fate has also been seen as a bargaining chip in negotiations over various Western hostages -- as in 2016 when rumours swirled in Kabul that the government was planning to execute him.
Shortly after, the militants released a video showing Canadian Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, who were kidnapped in 2012, pleading for their release. They were freed in 2017.