KABUL -- Afghan authorities have agreed to release hundreds of Taliban prisoners as part of the government's response to a surprise, three-day ceasefire the insurgents called to mark the Eid ul Fitr festival.
On Monday (May 25) the government freed 100 inmates from Bagram prison and will release another 900 inmates on Tuesday (May 26), the biggest group of Taliban prisoners freed so far.
"There is a decision to release 900 today," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal told AFP, adding that the exact number could vary subject to legal procedures.
The prisoner release will continue until 2,000 prisoners are freed, he said.
"We hope this will eventually lead to a lasting peace that the people of Afghanistan so much desire and deserve," Faisal said.
'Extend the ceasefire'
The ceasefire, only the second of its kind in the 19-year-old conflict, has raised hopes of an extended truce that could pave the way for long-awaited peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.
The previous ceasefire was for Eid ul Fitr in 2018, which saw Taliban fighters and civilians celebrating the pause in violence together. After experiencing a taste of peace and a normal life, hundreds of Taliban fighters refused to return to the battlefield.
"Extend the ceasefire. Save lives," Shaharzad Akbar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said on Twitter.
"End the violence so that we can all focus on making services available to the most vulnerable across the country, on expanding access to human rights, so that we have space to breathe."
The group could extend the ceasefire by seven days if the government speeds up the release of prisoners, said a Taliban source.
Militants plan to release about 200 Afghan security force members they hold, said another insurgent source.
President Ashraf Ghani said his administration was ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban.
A calm and peaceful Eid ul Fitr
In the city of Kunduz, which the Taliban attempted to seize just days ago, calm prevailed as residents celebrated the end of Ramadan.
"Just two days ago panic had set in the city," said Atiqullah, a shopkeeper from Kunduz.
"Today, you go out and feel as if there is no more fighting. People are actually celebrating Eid."
The current ceasefire is the first initiated by the Taliban. The only other comparable pause in 2018 was first offered by Ghani.
The normally restive province of Uruzgan was calm, police said.
"There was non-stop fighting every single day, but since the ceasefire was announced, not a single shot has been fired," said Haji Lal Agha, the provincial police chief.
"It is especially good for the residents of Tirin Kot, who would hear the sound of gunfire every day," he added, referring to the provincial capital.
There were no reports of fighting from Kandahar, once a bastion for the Taliban, and Khost Province was peaceful, police said.
"We are carefully monitoring the ceasefire and the situation, and there has not been any major activity by the enemy since the ceasefire was announced," Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said.
He said that the government was, however, investigating a mortar attack in Laghman Province that killed five civilians.
Removing hurdles to peace
Violence had escalated since the Taliban signed a deal with US negotiators in February.
The agreement set the stage for intra-Afghan peace talks and stipulated that the government would first release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel.
Before the May 24 announcement of plans to free up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners, Kabul had already released about 1,000 Taliban inmates while the insurgents had freed about 300 Afghan captives.
The Taliban insist Kabul must release all 5,000 members as agreed in the deal.
"This process should be completed in order to remove hurdles in the way of commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.
The ceasefire was "a momentous opportunity that should not be missed" while pledging that the United States would "do its part to help", US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered the deal, said on Twitter May 23.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the ceasefire but said in a statement May 24 that he expected "the Taliban to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield".
He urged the two sides to avoid escalating violence after Eid.
Since the deal was signed on February 29, Afghan government officials have reported more than 3,800 attacks that have killed 420 civilians and wounded 906.
Khalilzad has maintained that the insurgents have kept up their end of the bargain by not attacking the US-led coalition forces -- even if recent violence violated the spirit of the accord.
His remarks came after an attack against a maternity hospital in Kabul killed dozens -- including mothers and infants -- and a suicide bombing at a funeral in Nangarhar.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attacks, but Ghani blamed the Taliban and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) for the violence.