KABUL -- Thousands of Afghans began a three-day gathering in Kabul on Friday (August 7) to decide whether to release about 400 Taliban prisoners, including many involved in attacks that killed scores of Afghans and foreigners.
The prisoners' fate is a crucial hurdle in launching peace talks between the two warring sides, which have committed to completing a prisoner exchange before the talks can start.
"The Taliban said if these 400 are released, then within three days direct talks will start," President Ashraf Ghani said as he opened the loya jirga at the Kabul Polytechnic University.
"If they are not freed, not only would they continue the war, but they would intensify it. But it was not possible to release them without consulting the nation."
About 3,200 dignitaries are participating in the three-day assembly, said Masoom Stanekzai, chairman of the organising committee.
They are expected to pass a resolution on Sunday (August 9), but their decision is not legally binding. The previous government once rejected a jirga's recommendation.
The Taliban on August 7 dismissed the jirga, saying it did not represent the nation.
"We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement before the first session started.
"But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan's friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war."
Pompeo vowed that the United States would hold the Taliban to its commitments to reduce violence after the start of peace talks and to maintain support for Afghanistan.
"We are ready to support a peace settlement, including by extending US development programs to previously underserved areas," he said.
According to an official list of the Taliban prisoners, many of the inmates are accused of serious offences, with more than 150 of them on death row.
The list also includes a group of 44 insurgents of particular concern for their role in "high-profile" attacks.
They include five insurgents linked to the 2018 attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul that killed 40 people, including 14 foreigners.
A Taliban militant involved in the massive May 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul is on the list, as well as a former Afghan army officer who killed five French troops and wounded 13 in 2012 in an insider attack.
According to the prisoner list, the Taliban are demanding the release of an insurgent involved in the 2018 attack against the British security firm G4S as well as several militants involved in the killing of US soldiers.
Two militants involved in a suicide attack targeting a NATO convoy in Kabul in 2015 that killed 12 people, including three Americans, were among the 400.
Another pair on the list are imprisoned for the 2003 murder of Bettina Goislard, a United Nations refugee worker.
"There are definitely some prisoners that people don't want released, mostly because they are guilty of having killed coalition troops and nationals," a Western official familiar with the case told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The prisoner swap is not the only hurdle to peace talks.
The Taliban and government forces agreed to a three-day truce to mark Eid ul Adha from July 31 to August 2.
However, fighting resumed Wednesday (August 5) when the Taliban attacked government forces in Ghazni Province, the first time authorities confirmed direct fighting since the ceasefire expired.
Ten insurgents were killed in two clashes, according to Defence Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman.
"Their attacks were repelled, and they suffered casualties," he told AFP.
Wahidullah Jumazada, spokesman for the Ghazni provincial governor, confirmed the two clashes.
In one battle near Ghazni city, Afghan forces called in an air strike when Taliban fighters raided an army base housing about 300 government troops.
Another concern is that the Taliban have maintained a close relationship with al-Qaeda, which analysts and officials say is in breach of the Taliban's peace agreement with the United States and an indication of their insincerity about holding intra-Afghan talks and ending the war.