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Afghanistan to free 900 more Taliban prisoners

The pause in fighting, which came into effect on Sunday to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr was, for the most part, holding across the country, officials said.

Picture: Pixabay.com

KABUL - Afghan authorities plan to release 900 more Taliban prisoners on Tuesday, as calls grow for the militants to extend a ceasefire on its third and final day.

The pause in fighting, which came into effect on Sunday to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr was, for the most part, holding across the country, officials said.

The government announced plans Sunday to release up to 2,000 insurgent prisoners in response to the Taliban's three-day ceasefire offer.

On Monday they freed 100, and will release another 900, the government said, the biggest group of Taliban prisoners to be freed so far.

The exact number could vary subject to legal procedures, National Security Council spokesperson Javid Faisal told AFP.

He said the authorities hoped the Taliban would extend the ceasefire so that delayed peace talks could commence.

"If the Taliban are ready to extend the ceasefire, we are ready to continue the ceasefire too," Faisal told a news conference.

"We hope they release our prisoners so that intra-Afghan peace talks begin as soon as possible... The future depends on the Taliban's next move," he said.

The Taliban prisoners are being held in several prisons, but many of the 900 to be freed Tuesday are to be released from Bagram jail, which is controlled by Afghan forces

A senior member of the Taliban told AFP the group planned to release about 200 Afghan security force members held captive, without specifying when.

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.

'EXTENDED CEASEFIRE'

"Extend the ceasefire. Save lives," Shaharzad Akbar, head 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."

Another senior Taliban source told AFP that the group could extend the ceasefire by seven days if the government speeds up the release of prisoners.

But insurgent spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said he had no information about an extension.

The Taliban have insisted on the release of their fighters as agreed to with the United States in February.

The US-Taliban deal stipulates the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel.

It also paves the way for all foreign forces to leave the country by next year.

Prior to this week's releases, Kabul had already freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates, while the insurgents had let go about 300 Afghan security forces captives.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while welcoming the latest developments, has insisted that Taliban prisoners should not return to the battlefield once freed.

President Ashraf Ghani has said his administration is ready to begin peace negotiations, which had been scheduled to start by 10 March, seen as key to ending the war in the impoverished country.

Before the ceasefire started the Taliban had claimed deadly attacks against Afghan forces across the country.

It denied a gruesome attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul earlier this month when gunmen shot dead mothers, nurses and newborns.

Ghani has blamed the Taliban and the Islamic State group for the hospital attack which triggered international outrage.