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As Deadline Passes, Afghan Cease-Fire Appears To Be Holding

Taliban prisoners walk in line before their release from Bagram prison in the northern province of Parwan on May 26.
Taliban prisoners walk in line before their release from Bagram prison in the northern province of Parwan on May 26.

KABUL -- Even though calls for the Taliban to prolong a cease-fire with the Afghan government have gone unanswered so far, there have been no signs of renewed fighting and the militants say they will release more prisoners.

A Taliban-declared three-day lull in fighting, which ended on May 26, provided a rare break from the violence, prompting the government to call on the militants to extend the cease-fire so long-delayed peace talks could begin.

Amid 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 the AFP news agency that the militants were planning to free about 50 to 100 Afghan security force members as early as May 28.

The Afghan government has also called on the Taliban to extend the cease-fire.

"If the Taliban are ready to extend the cease-fire, we are ready to continue the cease-fire too," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said on May 27, adding that the future of negotiations "depends on the Taliban's next move."

Earlier, a senior Taliban figure was quoted as saying the group was considering an extension of the cease-fire “if these developments, like the announcement of prisoner release, continue."

The prisoner exchange is part of a February 29 U.S.-Taliban agreement that did not include the Afghan government. Under the deal, Washington agreed to pull its troops out of the country in exchange for security guarantees.

On May 26, U.S. President Donald Trump said he had not set a target date for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid speculation he may make ending the United States' longest war a campaign issue ahead of November's presidential election.

"We're there 19 years and, yeah, I think that's enough.... We can always go back if we want to," Trump told a White House news conference. "I have no target. But as soon as reasonable.”

U.S. troops are in Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. A few thousand U.S. troops cooperate with 16,500-strong NATO-led force to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces.

A key point of the February deal between the Taliban and the United States involved a U.S. commitment 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.

But U.S. and NATO officials speaking on condition of anonymity have 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.

Washington also pays about $4 billion a year to maintain the Afghan security force.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa

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