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U.S. Envoy Meets Taliban In Doha After Start Of Prisoner Swaps

FILE: U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Abdul-Ghani shaking hands after signing an agreement on February 29.

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has met in Qatar with senior Taliban representatives to discuss what the U.S. State Department described as "current challenges" in implementing a peace deal signed in February by the United States and the Taliban.

The talks in Doha on April 13 were announced by Washington after an initial prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban office in Doha, said on Twitter that Khalilzad and U.S. Army General Scott Miller met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of Afghanistan's Taliban and its chief negotiator.

Shaheen said the two sides discussed the "complete implementation" of the February 29 U.S.-Taliban deal for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal. Shaheen said they also discussed a "delay in the release of prisoners."

Khalilzad said the start of prisoner swaps by Kabul and the Taliban was "an important step" toward Afghan talks on a permanent Afghan peace deal.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Taliban on April 12 released 20 Afghan government prisoners in the southern province of Kandahar.

A Taliban spokesman told AFP that its decision to release a first group of prisoners was "a goodwill step... to accelerate the prisoner exchange process."

Earlier, the Afghan government had released 100 Taliban prisoners -- bringing to 300 the total number of Taliban inmates freed by Kabul since April 8.

Khalilzad on April 13 called for accelerated efforts "to meet targets specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement as soon as possible."

He said the prisoner exchange was more important than ever because prison populations are threatened by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pact signed by the United States and the Taliban in Doha calls for the Afghan government to release a total of 5,000 Taliban fighters as a confidence-building measure ahead of formal peace talks aimed at ending the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan.

In return, the Taliban has vowed to release some 1,000 Afghan government troops and civilian workers it is holding.

But the Taliban last week recalled a three-member team it had sent to Kabul to try to finalize the swap, originally set to happen by March 10.

The militants blamed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's administration for delaying the exchange "under one pretext or another," while Kabul called on the Taliban not to "sabotage the process by making excuses."

Under the U.S.-Taliban accord, talks between Kabul and the Taliban and a series of security commitments from the militants are to be met by the withdrawal from Afghanistan of all U.S. troops and other foreign coalition forces within 14 months.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

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