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Afghanistan frees 200 Taliban prisoners to push peace talks

Afghanistan has freed nearly 200 Taliban prisoners to spur long-delayed peace talks, as a team of negotiators readies to fly this week to Qatar’s capital, Afghan officials said on Wednesday.

The prisoners formed part of a group of 400 jailed “hardcore” Islamist separatists whose stalled release had appeared set to delay talks between the government and the insurgent group to end nearly two decades of war.

“The Afghan government has released another batch of the remaining Taliban prisoners and the work is still underway to move the prisoner exchange process forward,” Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesperson for President Ashraf Ghani, said in a statement.

He did not give the exact number, however. Two officials said the release from the main jail in the capital Kabul took place on Monday and Tuesday, at the same time that the Taliban freed six Afghan special forces. About 120 prisoners remain to be freed in line with Taliban demands, including six whose release some Western governments, including Australia, have objected to.

“We want to finish the prisoner swap so we could start the peace process as soon as possible,” said a senior government official.A source said it could be completed by Wednesday. A government-mandated negotiation team is likely to fly on Thursday to Doha, said Fraidoon Kwazoon, the spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation.