Three members of Afghanistan's Taliban have arrived in Kabul to “monitor” the government's release of imprisoned Taliban militants as part of a peace deal signed by the Taliban and the United States in late February, the militant group says.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the “technical” team arrived in Kabul on March 31 to "help the process of prisoners' release by identification of the prisoners [and] their transportation."
The Taliban team's arrival marked the first time an official Taliban delegation has been in the Afghan capital since the group was driven from power by U.S.-led forces in November 2001.
"They are here now and we will begin our discussion,” a senior Afghan government official told Reuters. “The prisoner release might go ahead in a few days if everything goes as planned."
The planned release of prisoners is part of a deal signed by the United States and the Taliban in Doha on February 29. It calls for the Afghan government to release 5,000 detained Taliban fighters as a confidence-building measure ahead of formal peace talks.
The Taliban has vowed to release 1,000 Afghan government troops and civilian workers it is holding.
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, Taliban representatives also agreed to commit to direct talks with the Afghan government aimed at ending the country’s 18-year conflict.
In return for the start of talks and a series of security commitments from the Taliban, all U.S. troops and other foreign coalition forces are meant to withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months.
A power struggle between President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival in Afghanistan's 2019 presidential election, former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, has threatened to derail the peace process.
But Abdullah on March 31 vowed that he would ensure their political dispute “does not overshadow peace efforts."
Last week, the Afghan government unveiled a 21-member team that would be tasked with negotiating with the Taliban.
Abdullah said the team "represents the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and our national interests.”
“We still have time to discuss the team’s reporting mechanism and the source of its authorities," Abdullah said.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has praised Kabul's negotiating team as “pretty inclusive, pretty broad" -- saying he was "happy about that."
"We've begun to see some work done on prisoner releases as well: all elements that have to come together so we can get to the intra-Afghan negotiations, which ultimately will prove to be the only mechanism that has any hope of delivering peace and reconciliation to the people of Afghanistan," Pompeo told reporters.
Meanwhile, the European Union said it has offered “full support" to Kabul's negotiating team, which it said constitutes “an important step towards starting intra-Afghan negotiations and solving the domestic political crisis.”
The EU also called on the Taliban to “show genuine commitment to peace negotiations and to reduce violence and engage in meaningful discussions” on a cease-fire.