Three Taliban commanders have been released by the Afghan government as part of a prisoner swap involving two Western hostages, sources have told Al Jazeera.
The sources said on Tuesday that the men, including senior Taliban leader Anas Haqqani, had landed in Qatar, which hosts the group’s political office at the request of the United States.
In exchange, two university professors identified as US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were released later on Tuesday. The pair have been held by the Taliban for three years.
The US State Department said in a statement that King and Weeks were in the care of the US military, where they were recovering and would soon be reunited with their loved ones.
“Our family is overjoyed that Tim has been released after more than three years in captivity,” Weeks’ family said in an emailed statement released by Australia’s foreign ministry.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Weeks was receiving medical care, but declined to provide details.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the release. “We see these developments as hopeful signs that the Afghan war, a terrible and costly conflict that has lasted 40 years, may soon conclude through a political settlement,” Pompeo said.
Michael Semple, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast’s Global Peace, Security and Justice institute, described the Taliban members being released as among the group’s “elite”.
“We know the Taliban were extremely keen to get their family out … and we know that the fate of the hostages has been a concern for the US administration and for their families for a long time,” Semple told Al Jazeera.
The developments come after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a week ago that Haqqani – whose older brother is the deputy Taliban leader and head of the Haqqani Network – a Taliban affiliate, and the two other commanders would be freed.
At the time, Ghani said the decision was made after consultations with the US and was aimed at “facilitating face-to-face negotiations directly with the Taliban”, who have, until now, refused to engage with what they call an illegitimate, US-backed “puppet” government.
But the swap was abruptly postponed, with the Taliban shifting its hostages to a new location after the commanders failed to land in Qatar.
Semple said the apparent move to complete the swap appeared to be a “fig leaf” exchanged between Ghani’s administration and the Taliban, but cautioned there was “nothing to indicate” the latter had changed their “political refusal to negotiate with the government”.
The Taliban seized power in 1996 and ruled Afghanistan until 2001 when it was dislodged from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion.
Renewed efforts to end the country’s 18-year-conflict have been stepped up recently, with US special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad visiting Pakistan last month to meet the Taliban’s top negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Washington said Khalilzad was in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to follow up on talks he held in September in New York with Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan. The administration insisted Khalilzad was not in Pakistan to restart US-Taliban peace talks.
The meeting was the first that Khalilzad had held with the Taliban since US President Donald Trump declared in September that the peace talks, which were held in Qatar over the past year, were “dead”.