KABUL — Afghanistan agreed on Sunday to release 400 Taliban prisoners, raising hopes that peace talks between the government and the Taliban can finally begin, following a peace deal the insurgents signed with the U.S. earlier this year.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he would sign the decree after a meeting of the council of elders, known as Loya Jirga, approved the Taliban’s demand to release the 400 prisoners “in order to prevent the obstruction, to start the peace talks, stop bloodshed and for the goodwill of the people.”
Ghani had convened the assembly in the capital, Kabul, where some 3,200 Afghan community leaders and politicians gathered amid tight security to advise the government on whether the prisoners should be freed.
“You have given a path to our nation today,” Ghani said, addressing the assembly in a speech broadcast live on national television.
He added: “We don’t have other way than peace.”
Three Taliban leaders told NBC News they would wait for the release of their prisoners before making any plans on how to proceed. However, they said they would not declare a ceasefire immediately.
Taliban militants have insisted on the prisoners’ release as a condition for entering peace talks with the Afghan government.
On Friday, Ghani told the assembly that the Taliban were demanding the release of the remaining 400 prisoners for the peace talks to begin, but it was “above the authority of the president of Afghanistan” because they were convicted with serious crimes.
If the prisoners are not released, he said, the Taliban threatened to ramp up its violent activity.