Three ranking Taliban prisoners released by the Kabul government have been swapped for American and Australian hostages held by the insurgents since their abduction in 2016, the Taliban and the American University in Kabul said Tuesday. The whereabouts of the two hostages, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, weren’t immediately clear.
Abbas Stanakzai, a senior Taliban official who has led negotiations with the U.S., told CBS News’ Sami Yousafzai that the swap was “completed.” The American University in Kabul, where the two abducted men worked, also confirmed their release.
Stanakzai said the freed Taliban members would remain in Doha, Qatar, “and some of them will be active members of the Taliban’s political and negotiating team.”
The Taliban’s political arm is headquartered in Qatar
The three freed militants include, the younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also heads the , one of the most powerful Taliban factions.
A senior member of the Haqqani network told Yousafzai the deal was a “golden opportunity for President Trump” that he hoped would “encourage all sides to restart peace talks” with the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani a week agoof the Taliban figures, saying at a press event broadcast live on state television that it was a very hard decision he felt he had to make in the interest of the Afghan people.
King and Weeks were abducted in 2016 outside the American University in Kabul, where they both worked as teachers.
The university issued a statement Tuesday saying it “welcomes the news of the release of our colleagues,” and shares in their families relief that the three-year ordeal was over.
“We look forward to providing all the support we can to Kevin and Tim and their families,” the university said. “The AUAF community, our students, faculty and staff, have keenly felt the absence of our two colleagues even as we have continually urged their release over these past three years.”
The year after they were abducted, the Taliban released two videos showing King and Weeks. A January 2017 video showed them appearing pale and gaunt. In the later video, King and Weeks looked healthier and said a deadline for their release was set for June 16 that year.
Both said they were being treated well by the Taliban but that they remained prisoners and appealed to their governments to help set them free. It was impossible to know whether they were forced to speak.
Subsequently, U.S. officials said American forces had launched a rescue mission to free the two, but the captives weren’t found at the raided location.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made separate calls to Ghani on Monday to discuss the prisoners’ release, Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
According to a State Department statement, Pompeo told Ghani the U.S. was “committed to work closely together to address violence if the President’s decision does not produce the intended results.”
The release and swap were aimed at trying to restart talks to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war and allow for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The U.S. was close to an agreement in September with the Taliban but a fresh wave of violence in the Afghan capital thatbrought talks and an impending deal to .
The agreement called for direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government as well as other prominent Afghans to find a negotiated end to the war and set out a roadmap for what a post -war Afghanistan would look like.
In his discussions with Pompeo and O’Brien, Ghani said he wanted a reduction in violence and an all-out cease-fire, his spokesman said.