A Taliban delegation has arrived in Kabul for talks over a prisoner swap, just hours after Afghan officials blamed the militant group for two deadly attacks in the country’s north and west.
The prisoner exchange is part of a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February that called on the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and for the militants to free around 1,000 government captives as a confidence-building measure ahead of formal peace talks.
“A technical delegation of the Taliban is in Kabul to work with a technical team of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on the release of prisoners of both sides,” said National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal on May 28.
Later in the day, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted that the group had released 80 Afghan soldiers and government officials from their jails in northern Baghlan and Kunduz provinces. It brings to more than 300 the number of captives freed by the Taliban since April.
Last month, Afghan government representatives met with a three-member Taliban team in Kabul to discuss a prisoner swap, the first time an official Taliban delegation had been in the city since the group was driven from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
But the militant group broke off the talks days later, saying they had made no progress.
Since then the militants have intensified attacks on government forces, leaving the U.S.-Taliban peace deal on the verge of collapse.
But the Taliban’s announcement of a May 24-26 cease-fire to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr Islamic holiday has created new momentum.
In the first two major incidents since the three-day truce ended, officials said the Taliban killed 14 members of the Afghan security forces.
Waheeda Shahkar, spokeswoman for the northern Parwan Province's governor, said on May 28 that seven Afghan soldiers were killed when the militants attacked a checkpoint.
"The Taliban has also suffered casualties," Shahkar added.
District police chief Hussain Shah said militants set fire to the checkpoint, killing five security force personnel. Two more were shot dead.
On the outskirts of the western city of Farah, Taliban gunmen mounted an attack on a police post, killing seven officers, provincial police spokesman Mohibullah Mohib said.
"Eight Taliban fighters were also killed in the clash, which lasted for half an hour," Mohib said.
Some reports said at least three police officers were taken hostage.
The Taliban has not immediately claimed the attacks.
The government has called on the militants to extend the cease-fire so long-delayed peace talks could begin.
During the cease-fire, Afghan authorities released some 1,000 Taliban prisoners -- part of a pledge by the government to free up to 2,000 militants in response to the Taliban's cease-fire move.
A senior member of the Taliban on May 27 told AFP that militants were planning to free about 50 to 100 Afghan security-force members as early as May 28.
Earlier, a senior Taliban figure was quoted as saying the group is considering an extension of the cease-fire “if these developments, like the announcement of prisoner releases, continues."
The prisoner exchange is part of a February 29 U.S.-Taliban agreement that did not include the Afghan government. Under a key point of the deal, Washington agreed to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July in a first stage, before a complete withdrawal by May next year.
U.S. President Donald Trump on May 26 said he has not set a target date for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid speculation he may make ending America’s longest war a campaign issue ahead of November’s presidential election.
But U.S. and NATO officials speaking on condition of anonymity said U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is down to nearly 8,600, well ahead of schedule, in part because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
Trump said there were "7,000-some-odd" U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, but officials clarified that number was slightly over 8,600 troops.